16 December 2011

How to Use Someone Else's Research

As you start to gather information on your family, you'll find many avenues to follow. While records like birth, death and marriage certificates, population censuses and church records will give you some degree of accuracy, there are those other sources:

Other Family Members
Your great aunt has been doing research on the family tree for 40 years; or maybe a cousin is compiling a book listing your family back to Moses. The thing is, they may have loads of time put in and proof, but it may all be wrong. When I told my family I was interested in their information, my aunt claimed to have loads. On a computer. In her garage. Somewhere. The best I was able to get from her was an unsourced family GEDCOM (GEnealogical Data COMmunication file) taking us to A.D. 1430 on one side and A.D. 1670 on another. Which is fantastic, but without sources, I'm forced to ask where she got the information. How does she KNOW those are our relatives? What proof does she have that these people existed? Oh right, it's on her old computer. In her garage. Somewhere. My Great Uncle gave me another GEDCOM from his 30 years of research with some sources, but some leaps of faith it seems too. He had relatives listed twice, sometimes with different parents. How had he not noticed that? My cousin had proof of our Native American line..... as long as our great great grandmother's father was born after she died..... oops.

Not that there isn't information to be had here, but it's not Gospel. I'm pretty sure they know the names of their cousins, neices and nephews. They may know some distant relatives that lived in or around their lifetime. However, without outside sourcing to back it up, linking yourself to these trees should be done with caution. They are excellent places to start, but you will have to do some work to clean them up. I have one tree I have for all my factual (official records) sources that only get a relative added to it if I can prove it. That's my end result tree. But I have these other trees that I'm sure are full of errors. I comb through each generation, person by person. Sometimes I've proven the link, sometimes I've had to remove a person or two (or ten). But often I use these trees just as a way to jump start my research. My father spent years calling various court houses and historical societies in Texas looking for any record of his grandmother's birth. After I found a Census showing her birthplace as Missouri, we were able to track her down to a little town called Texas, Missouri..... I don't think my dad's stopped laughing about that yet.

Online Family Trees
We live in a glorious age when you don't have to travel the world and spend years pawing through dusty file cabinets to find a possible match to your ancestor. Nor spend your life calling government, church and historical societies until you are broke financially and emotionally. When my father was working on the family tree, he'd spend vacations driving to other states to hopefully find one shred of evidence that his grandparents existed. I go online and within a month I have every U.S. Census they were in listing their birth places and children. He was jealous to say the least.

But along with all this plethora of digitised official documentation, there is also the online family trees. Just like the research your relatives have done, these may be well crafted, documented treasure troves. Or they are trash heaps of ineptitude. If anything can be learned from Ancestry.com's commericals, it's that most people want to be related to someone famous for something, a royal, or a unique individual that will be impressive to other people. It's not impossible to trace your family back to the beginning of time, it's just not probable. Prior to the 18th century, churches were your best source for family history. But the problem was that they had a great tendency to burn down. Royals keep great records, but they also tend to marry in close circles that the common man is unlikely to have broken into. So just like with your family's research, you can use what you find, but double check it. When you come to a conflict, keep an open mind and work both angles until you can prove one over the other. And remember, your relatives don't have to be special to the world to be special to you.

Vanity Genealogies
Now you've checked over all the data your family had. You've plucked carefully through online sources compiled by amateurs. Now, you've found the holy Grail.... a professionally documented genealogy. Uh....

Gustave Anjou, Orra E. Monnette, C. A. Hoppin, Horatio Gates Somersby, Charles H. Browning,  John S. Wurts and Frederick A. Virkus are some well-known con-men who created hundreds of false genealogies. And there are more "genealogists" that if not intentionally lying, they were obscenely inefficient in their research. As long as someone was willing to pay a good fee (Anjou would receive $9,000 for his work), they would provide a coat of arms, royal lineage, famous relatives.... anything to please the client. These were even more insidious when they would actually include a real document with facts and then add their own corroborating document they had falsified to make a connection. People were fooled for years! So if you find a book of your family, check the author. Then check their sources. And keep your mind open.

Have you ever received an email from Nigeria saying you are the last relative of a dead businessman who's money amounts to the millions? It's easy to claim this money. All you do is send this lawyer a fee of a couple grand and he will be able to provide the documents to prove your legitimacy and release the money to you. Surprisingly, this isn't new. A hundred years ago, fraudsters used to put these in the paper asking for someone to come forward as the heir to a contested fortune that didn't exist. People would naturally reply hoping to make a quick buck. These con-men would then ask for a fee to provide documents and legal help, sometimes encouraging whole families to chip in to be part of a membership of "heirs" fighting for their estates. Con-artists don't change their game, they just use better tools. If you find mention of a lost family fortune in your searches, be ready to find out your family was bamboozled.

So in the end.....
Spend time on any message board, forum or Facebook page about genealogy and you will see people that have thousands of family names on their tree. They can trace themselves to Charlemagne or Pontius Pilate or Adam himself. Their great great grandmother was an Indian princess (more on that one in another post!). They are distant cousins to dozens of famous people.

These people may be right, but the probabilities aren't on their side. Most people will get stuck in the 1800's when censuses didn't list everyone, just the head of the household. Churches, hospitals, city halls, libraries all burn down and lose centuries of records that were only kept there. False records abound; if you're willing to pay for proof, there's someone willing to make it for you. Even people who've been looking for years may still be stuck on this side of the ocean simply because they can't find any record of their founding ancestor's arrival and thus can't find where they departed. Europe has been a hotbed of wars that span years, decades or centuries destroying entire towns and all that they recorded. I have photos of my grandfather in France during WWII standing next to the rubble that once was a church. I've thought many times about who's history was lost that day. If not properly stored, documents can simply deteriorate. Like Dr. Who. I'm a huge fan of the show. However, because the BBC didn't properly store the film from the first two seasons, most of the episodes are lost to us, never to be seen again. Imagine what we've lost from documentaries and photos made in the early days of film. Lost, lost, lost.

And people lie. A family member looking for a new start or running from something shameful may have changed their name. My maternal grandmother's family has Jewish roots that to this day the older generations won't talk about for fear of persecution. My paternal grandmother used to yell at my father when he was a child if he "acted like an Indian" when he played, because racism against Natives was so strong when she was growing up. It was a point of pride to her to be able to pass for White. It was common to claim the child of your unmarried underaged daughter as your own rather than face familial shame. A man could have two families. Adoption can muddy your waters, especially if the family couldn't afford to make it official. Every now and again I lie awake wondering about all the people in Witness Protection....... what hurdles lay in front of their descendants????

You don't need to find a famous person to have an interesting tree. It may seem exciting to find these bright shining stars in your family history, but genealogy isn't a road to travel while you point out the landmarks. It doesn't matter if you find something interesting to someone else. Your family may toil in the background of world history, but they lived and that is the important part. Your unique family history is a tapestry of interwoven lives; vibrant colour and story all it's own. It's a panoramic landscape full of beauty and character. While you admire the sky and count the stars, I'll admire the land and take care of the roots.


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