It's a Fact. No Discussion Needed. Or Is It?


[XYZ] actually said “Facts can be debated.”

Think about that for a moment!


With these words, a meme in current circulation takes to task      a public statement by a public figure.  So, let’s do “think about that for a moment.”  Are facts debatable?

Every document we use gives us “facts.” Someone makes an assertion—lots of them if we are lucky. Are those facts immutably engraved in stone? Do you feel there is no need to question them because, well, facts are facts?

If so, consider Nathaniel Maddux.

On 24 February 1821, Nathaniel married Rebecca Howard in Cocke County, Tennessee. Nathaniel even said he married Rebecca on that date.1

Do we have a “fact” here?  Of course. A fact—an assertion about something—and it's a matter of public record.

Is that fact debatable? Absolutely!  Never mind that we have Nathaniel’s word for it. Never mind the assumption that a man ought to know who, when, and where he married. Never mind that an original document survives in which he makes this assertion. Never mind that he’s a primary informant for his statement about this event. He’s giving us firsthand information, by golly!

The “fact” of the marriage is still debatable, because “facts” often aren’t what they seem to be. Facts have context that have to be considered. Facts have to be checked for accuracy, for bias, for motive. We even need to search out other facts—alternative facts, to use another current buzzword—that may negate what we first assume to be a “fact.”

Let’s consider here the context for this fact of Nathaniel’s marriage. His statement appears in a September 1827 petition for  divorce—from one Anny Maddux.

Anny?  Umhhh.  Nathaniel said he married Rebecca in 1821. But in 1827 he’s seeking a divorce from Anny?

Was she “Rebecca Ann”? No. 

Did Rebecca die soon after marriage, leaving Nathaniel to remarry Anny, who did not live up to his expectations—hence the 1827 divorce petition?  No.

As Nathaniel’s petition explains:

On 6 December 1819, [he] was living in peace with his wife, Anny Maddux, when she left him. She left with Philip Rains. Nathaniel applied for a divorce at the circuit court on July 1820. He then married on 24 February 1821 to Rebecca Howard, thinking it wouldn’t be hard to get a divorce from his first wife, Anny …


As researchers, when we encounter details in a legal document, we do tend to treat those details as “facts.” But even facts beg to be debated. We’re foolish if we don’t. Facts always have other facts lurking in their shadows.

Seven months before Nathaniel married Rebecca, Tennessee’s frontier legislature became quite outdone with another fact and passed a bit of legislation that threatened the tranquility of this new marriage Nathaniel was jumping into:

For as much as divers evil disposed and lascivious persons being married, run out of one county into another or into places where they are not known, and there become to be married …

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the state of Tennessee, That if any person or persons within this state being married or which hereafter shall marry, do at any time, after the passage of this act, marry any person or persons, the former husband or wife being alive; that then every such offence shall be felony … and the person and persons so offending shall receive …. Trial and execution, in such county where the offence may have been committed.2

That law was passed, in fact, in the same month that Nathaniel filed for divorce from Anny. However, the local court to which he applied did not see fit to dissolve that marriage, perhaps because Anny had only been gone for seven months, not the seven years at which runaway spouses were deemed to be reliably gone.3

Meanwhile, lacivious or not, Nathaniel was in no mood to wait. And so, “thinking it wouldn’t be [so] hard to get a divorce,” he proceeded to commit an act of bigamy.

Cocke County’s local records of this era do not survive. But clearly, by 1827, Anny had not reappeared and the legality of Nathaniel’s marriage to Rebecca was a matter of local concern.  With the help of sixty friends who petitioned on his behalf, he asked the state legislature to tidy up his marital mess enough to keep him out of jail. Even so, the prospect of connubial bliss and community respectability with Rebecca faced another complication. Under the state’s prevailing law, if a divorce was granted the party guilty of adultery could not legally marry the person with whom the adultery had been committed.4

Surviving records tell us almost nothing more about Nathaniel’s imbroglio. The session acts between 1827 and 1835—the year the assembly bowed out of the divorce business—provide no evidence that the legislators had pity on his plight. By 1840, he had left Cocke for Polk County, with family in tow.5 By 1850, he had moved on to Missouri, where the census tells us that he still shared his home with a woman named Rebecca. That last census also suggests that, by that year 1827 when he petitioned to clean up his matrimonial problems, he and Rebecca had become devout Methodists—at least devout enough to name a son Lorenzo Dow.6

To no one’s surprise, family trees posted online for Nathaniel and Rebecca report the fact  that they married, but tell us nothing of the circumstances behind that fact.  Most even state the date of the marriage, but none seem to mention the record in which that fact  is documented.

Yes, facts should be debated. For everyone who seeks the truth—or at least as an approximation of it—facts must  be debated.

Facts are impish little devils. They’re shape shifters. They let us hide them or twist them to fit our needs of the moment. They allow us to select just the facts we want to report, the ones that support the case we want to make.

So, yes—and please—be a contrarian with your evidence. Question the facts. Search for the additional and alternative facts. Ferret out the truth that lurks behind the image someone else wants us to see and believe.

GRAPHIC CREDITS: PresenterMedia ( : created 18 March 2017), item 15168; used under license.

        1. Cocke County marriage and court records of this era have been destroyed. The “fact” of the marriage is documented in petition of Nathaniel Maddux, Record Group 60: Legislative Petitions, Tennessee State Archives; abstracted in Gale Williams Bammon and Debbie W. Spero, Tennessee Divorces, 1797–1858 (Nashville, TN: Privately Printed, 1985), 59.

        2. Edward Scott, Laws of the State of Tennessee, Including Those of North Carolina Now in Force in this State; From the Year 1715 to the Year 1820, Inclusive (Knoxville: Heiskell & Brown, 1821), 629.

        3. Ibid.

        4. Ibid., li.

        5.1840 U.S. census, Polk Co., Tenn., p. 4, line 13 “Nathaniel Mattocks.”

        6.1850 U.S. census, Dallas Co., Mo., population schedule, District 26, p. 322, dwelling 177, family 178, Nathaniel Madix (aged 60), Rebecca (aged 50), Lorenzo Dow Madix (aged 23), and younger children.


Posted 19 March 2017

Blog Term

Submitted byACProctoron Sat, 04/29/2017 - 05:22

I tried hard to resist commenting here, but the will is weak ...

Facts, in the hard literal sense, cannot be debated, although their consequences can. However, genealogy does not deal with such facts, otherwise there would be no need for evidence. Surely, what it deals with are "facts": those items of recorded information that may be used as evidence of some hard fact.

I could be mistaken but it seems that genealogy software -- and especially those with a database -- have elevated this term to something inconsistent with the normal usage of the term.

Cue confusion, argument, and grief ...


Submitted byEEon Sat, 04/29/2017 - 10:00

Of course, Tony, we're back to the same basic issue: words are defined differently in different fields. In software terms, for example, the noun document often is used for the piece of writing that provides instructions. In a historical sense, a reference to a document means something else entirely. In genealogy, there is a vast difference between a document and a how-to guide.

It is not just genealogy that uses the term fact "inconsistent[ly] with the ... usage of the term" in the field in which you were trained. History does also. So do journalists. So do courts. And attorneys. And detectives. When the crusty old Jack Webb admonished eyewitnesses with "Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts," he wasn't asking her for information that was indisputable He was asking for pieces of information based upon her observation--i.e., evidence.

On a personal basis, often when writing about this term I put it in quotation marks to signify the so-called sense. But doing so over and over again in any piece of writing becomes overwrought quickly. That point can be made once and, past that point, fact can be used in the sense that it is commonly used outside hard sciences.

Our bottom line?  The fact of the matter is that in our daily research fact more often means assertion, claim, or piece of evidence--entirely in a different sphere from the fact that the world is round (or spherical).

Submitted byACProctoron Sat, 04/29/2017 - 11:19

An existentialist might argue that there are no hard facts, but I don't want to go there  :-)

Given that there always is/was just one truth -- irrespective of whether we know of it -- then we're either relying on direct observation of it (I'm wet, and it's definitely raining), memory (I believe it was raining last Monday -- always a good bet in Ireland), or information provided from elsewhere (another person or recorded information).

There's certainly a sliding scale where some information (e.g. direct observation) will be treated as hard fact for all practical everyday usage, but others will be suspect and quite possibly wrong. My point was simply that typical genealogical sources will be much further down that scale, and so the term fact was never a good choice.

I have noticed you quoting the term, and I do the very same when I have to use it, but I deliberately avoid it in all other cases. Of course, if I used the same software as everyone else then I would probably find that choice a lot more difficult.