17 May 2012

Faith Is Not a Source

I'd like to talk to you about two very important qualities that every genealogist, if not every human being, should have: Pride and Responsibility. I want you to consider how much time you are putting into your ancestral search. How much money you have spent in order to find the truth. With whom do you plan to share your discoveries? Your mother? Your ailing grandfather? Your children? The genealogical community? I want you to picture it in your mind. How your heart will swell with pride as you show off all your hard work. How you will wait for the onslaught of accolades for the interesting, powerful story of your family that you have unearthed. What will they say? "Wow! That's amazing!", "I wish I could find something so cool!", "Can you teach me how to be as awesome as you?"............ how about "You're wrong"?

That last one is painful and all too often stated. It comes about when people are so busy gathering interesting people to place in their tree that they don't properly source their facts. It can be embarrassing for the person who has made the mistakes, but I can't think of one family historian that hasn't experienced it at least once. I want you to be proud of your work. I want you to boast and share all that you learn with anyone that'll give you the time of day, but I also need you to be responsible. When I talk of being responsible in genealogy, what I mean is that this isn't about you. One day, you won't be the family historian anymore. Someday everything you've researched will go to someone else in the family (or be donated to a historical society). Heck, right now there are millions of users on Ancestry that could potentially copy information from your tree. Every error you make is something they'll have to correct. And every error made decreases the validity of every fact produced from or around it. Meaning that the next generation is going to have to fix your work rather than build on it. Meaning that your legacy will not be revered and remembered, but torn apart and ridiculed.

Do you know why so many people with no Native American ancestry have rumors of a "Cherokee Princess"? Someone somewhere in their past made it up and each generation has passed it down as the truth. I've had heated conversations with people trying to explain to them that if they can't find proof of it, then it may not be true. "Grandpa wasn't a liar." Never said he was. He may have heard it from someone else. The fact still remains, however, that all the evidence you've found shows his family is from Italy, with no variation. There are people that are desperate to find a link to royalty, history, and fame. They will bend facts, omit contradicting information, and "assume" to get what they want. And I have seen people boast about taking themselves back to Adam and Eve on Ancestry's Facebook page almost daily. These people come in all puffed up with self-importance, wanting to be given some pat on the back or encouragement. Instead they get questioned on their sources (if not their mental capacity). Invariably these people become defensive. They call the responses cruel, irresponsible, and unnecessary. I understand; they're hurt. There is one question in it all, however, that they never answer: "what sources did you use?"

They don't answer, because they don't have any. Well, there's a few that use Ancestry trees. NOT A SOURCE. The Bible....... I'll give you that one, but you still have to make a leap from the present to a book gathered and edited at least 400 years after the last fact in it. Not to mention the errors in translation that are inevitable. So, I'd not say this was an accurate source even if I were to allow it. What else you got? Royal trees? Okay, royals keep up with their genealogy for the purposes of ascension to the throne....... but they don't follow every line. And did you find your ancestor in the tree or did you jump over a gap to make the connection? Any other sources? Wikipedia? GTFO.

What's a good source? There are many. Birth certificates, baptismal records, marriage licenses, wills, deeds, land grants, death certificates, letters, photographs, oral history.......... and many more. But what really makes a good source depends on how it stands up to a critical evaluation:
  • When was the record made? The closer to the time in question, the more accurate. A death record is great for the date of death, but a witness gives the date of birth. A birth or baptismal record will be more accurate for that. A journal from your grandmother, written at the time she was a child, will be more accurate than an oral history recorded in her geriatric years. (Though the change in perspective can be helpful). Accounts of the war of 1812 written during the conflict will yield more than histories written 100 years later.
  • Who made the record? If the informant is the person in question, the information will be more accurate. If the neighbor gave the census taker information, some things may be incorrect or omitted. However, if the wife gave the information, it's very likely that she knows her childrens' correct birth dates and what year she married.
  • Where was the record made? A news article about the Revolutionary war from Britain isn't going to have the same tone or facts as one made in America. Also, if it's been translated from it's original, there may be errors. You can't learn every language of the world, but if your family seems to originate in Russia, learning Russian might be helpful to your research.
  • What sources does it use? If it's not the first time the event was recorded (an index, historical accounts of a war or plague gathered decades or centuries after the fact, excerpts of a deed), then where did it get it's facts? How accurate were the original sources? Find them and independently evaluate them. This is why Wikipedia isn't a source! It's made from a compilation of sources (if it is sourced) by someone who may have an agenda to withhold or invent facts for the article they want to write. You can start with Wikipedia, but check and use their sources. NEVER cite Wikipedia. If nothing else, it makes you look simple-minded and lazy.
  • Are there statements in the one source that contradict themselves? Can they be resolved? Are there facts that are not physically possible? (was a blind man used as an eye witness? would your ancestor had to have travelled faster than the modes of transportation available to him to be where the documents seem to place him?)
  • Once a source is verified on its own, can you back it up with other sources? Can you refute it? To connect two or more together, do you have to make a lot of assumptions? If you have to ignore half a record to make it fit with others, it may not be your ancestor.
Each and every fact in your tree needs at least one source. You may use yourself as a great source for things that happened when you were alive (grandparents' death, childrens' birth, your life). You are a secondary source for things you heard, but weren't alive for (parents' birth, great grandparents' marriage). You would want a document to back up what you've heard. Don't discount a source entirely based on what you "know" unless it would be impossible for it to be true. Find another document to prove or disprove it. Every source should be able to stand up on its own, but must be questioned if other sources contradict it. Read an entire document. A good example is my great great grandfather Patrick Whitfield. A cousin of mine had used another person's tree to build hers. When I got to Patrick, she had him listed as Eugene Patrick. Even had census records. The names seemed to match for the wife and some of the kids. But what she didn't notice is that in the 1920 census, Eugene was living on a military base (separate from his wife and children) and the 1930 census stated Patrick had never served in the military. I pointed this out and she said she was investigating the possibility of it being different people, but she hadn't noticed the military thing. She'd look into his military career and get back to me. It didn't take that long for me to figure it out by myself. I found Eugene Patrick in 1910..... a county over from Patrick 1910. Since I knew my grandfather was born out of wedlock and I knew his mother's name, I searched them out in 1930. I confirmed they were listed with the Patrick that had no military career. Patrick had lived in Morganfield in 1910 and 1930, so it stood to reason that he lived there in 1920. This is where my cousin had placed him in a military base, but that didn't mesh with the 1930 census. Sure enough, I found Patrick on the same farm in Morganfield in 1920.

My cousin was willing to do two things: 1. Make a leap of faith that Patrick had been in the military and that the 1930 census was wrong. 2. Ignore that his youngest children weren't listed with him or his wife in 1920. This error had been copied by over 100 trees. I can't imagine contacting every member to tell them they were mistaken. And it wasn't the only time I found errors in the tree. She had all the right records for a great uncle, but had conflicting censuses for his wife. I mentioned that the wife's censuses showed the same husband and wife names, but were for another state with different children. "Oh he had two wives with the same name". When did he have two wives? I asked if she had marriage records or maybe the children's birth/death records with parents' names. No, but the names on the censuses matched, so he had two wives. At the same time? Two states apart? When did he sleep??? In the end, no matter how nice I started my conversation, I eventually had the difficult duty of telling her she had the wrong information. At first she was apologetic, but soon she became defensive. Why was I ruining her fun? She was just starting out! I wasn't the all-knowing genealogist! Maybe I was wrong!

How would you feel if I told you I was going to add your grandmother to my tree, because I was just having fun? I'm not going to use your sources, I'll make up my own. I'll add pictures from another website and say the women in them are her. I'll have her married four times with 20 kids, three of which are born after she dies. How would you feel when my tree is copied 50 times by other members, perpetuating my lies? How would you feel when you contact those other members to correct the mistake and get nothing but rude emails back about how they know it's right because of all the other trees that say so. Now, what if it was your great grandmother? Your great grand aunt? Your fifth cousin three times removed? Does the distance in relationship change your opinion? Probably. I would bet hard currency that's why no one seems to care that they are adding themselves to trees for famous people even when they can't prove a relationship. Spend any time on Ancestry's Facebook page and you'll find the "fantasy tree" makers. William the Conqueror, Constantine, Charlemagne, Genghis Khan, Moses... you'll hear again and again how high a probability that just about everyone in the world is related to one or more of these people. And that's probably true. But you can't prove a link with a statistic. You need reliable documents. Again, I'm not here to debate the existence of Adam and Eve or the veracity of the Bible. I simply want to know what records are supporting your tree to make that connection. If you can prove that link, I want to know how. That's something I don't know how to do and it'd be something to improve my skill. But ask for sources and the poster will become very defensive. They'll admit that they may not have a 100% accurate tree, but they are just having fun. Why won't I let them have fun? Because it's irresponsible of me to allow it. It's irresponsible of you to create it.

Whether you would term genealogy a hobby or a career or something in between, one thing you should never consider it is a game. When you build your family tree, you are creating a unique and special masterpiece. Your family may have been researched a thousand times before, but what you are doing now is new because it is new to you. No matter your experience level, you are working on your family history. This isn't just about collecting names. You are gathering the evidence of lives lived. You bring forth your ancestors from the nameless void of Time into the consciousness of Now. Because of you, they can once again say "I have lived. I existed. I still matter." Shouldn't you put forth your best effort in getting their story straight?

Let's leave the fairy tales to the Grimm Brothers


  1. Amen. Amen. Amen. We probably aren't related, but we are kindred spirits when it comes to our trees. I'm a newbie. I started because I was going to digitize my mother's genealogy records. I knew how meticulous she was in her research. But I found I wasn't happy until I could source everything she said was so. Yes, I even question my own mother's work. I think she's smiling down upon me for doing so.

    1. Good for you, Jody! My mother and my aunt are actually registered members of the Cherokee nation, but I still verified the connection on my own. You can never be too careful. And with the advancements in technology and information sharing in the last decade, we're capable of a greater degree of accuracy now than ever before.

      It's good that you as a newbie are starting out on the right foot. Many people learn the hard way about verifying and sourcing years after they start........ leaving them with an uphill battle on "redos".

  2. I have a funny one Rhi. My mom and Aunt were out one day when my mom started telling someone she was part Indian. My Aunt said "We aren't Indian Jean" and my mom promptly replied "You be what you want to be and I will be what I want to be".

    1. Ha Ha! That's how rumors get started!