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.
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?