Saturday, August 07, 2010

Proving your point

The one thing that bugs me about online genealogy is that it is all too easy to replicate mistakes in someone else's research. Newbies figure if it's on the Internet at a genealogy website, it must be true. So they click and combine online pedigrees with their own genealogy databases without a second thought. Or to put it more precisely -- without evaluating the sources.

Good family historians use the most reliable sources available to prove family relationships. 

Even an original document created at the time an ancestor lived could be inaccurate.
  • The info may have been about someone else in the area with the same name.
  • The informant may be under stress, such as at the time of an ancestor's death.
  • The informant may have been misinformed.
  • The informant may be a neighbor and woefully unaware of the true facts.

Use them ONLY to lead you to original documents. Here is an example of a suggestion for the marriage of Charles S. Weiser and Eliza M Weasden [we know her last name is Wasden] who are on my test family tree. The marriage date suggested by the index agrees with our family records, collected by my paternal grandmother Myrtle Eliza Weiser, daughter of this couple. Gramma's hand-written family group sheet record of the marriage isn't as accurate as the official marriage entry, because clearly my grandmother was not there to witness her parent's marriage. Sure, she could have asked her mother about the wedding date, but if there had been a late marriage or a unusually short-term pregnancy, great-grandmother could have fudged, never figuring the records would be readily searched by an intrepid genealogist (me!) three generations later.

Fortunately this marriage entry lists the exact Volume and Page number in the Alturas County, Idaho courthouse where I was able to obtain the marriage entry itself:

Although parents, ages or birthplaces weren't listed on this 1883 marriage entry, the witnesses may prove pivotal in future research on this line.

If you are looking at a document that might prove a fact in an ancestor's life, please weigh the evidence carefully.

  • Was this an official church or government record?
  • Was the person writing the document impartial, doing his/her job in the usual and customary manner?
  • Did the informant have anything personal to gain by misrepresenting the truth? 
In the case of an indexed entry from some websites, we often cannot tell if the work as done by an individual whose second language is English, or if it was done by a group of individuals. In the case of the marriage index entry at Ancestry we read:

Source Information:
Upper Snake River Family History Center and Ricks College (Rexburg, Idaho). Idaho Marriages, 1842-1996 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2005. Original data: These records were extracted between 1982 and 1996 primarily from marriage records held at county courthouses. Specific source information is provided with each entry.
Still, we cannot determine if this index was created with a double, blind data entry system as now employed by Anything less would prove problematic, since no computer or arbitrator served to notice differences in indexers' work.

But the official marriage entry, was recorded at the request of J. J. White, Justice of the Peace for Shoshone Precinct, Alturas County, Idaho. Both of these individuals were working in the normal course of their duties and have no apparent ulterior motives for fudging the marriage entry. For these reasons, I'd rate the scanned image of the marriage entry very reliable.

Take care to study all surviving record groups for a specific area to be sure you are not assuming relationship to those named in a document, merely on the basis of a similar name. Finding out what is available in an ancestor's home town is a subject for another  blog entry.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt     :)
Your friend in genealogy.


    1. Great Post! I was reading the same opinion of this at Genealogy's Star blog. I agree.

    2. I completely agree, I have found so much wrong information on my genealogy tree on the net. Sadly enough, I even found a tombstone with a wrong date. Luckily an older relative was able to confirm that the tombstone was wrong. It is hard to know what to trust.


    3. Great post Myrtle! Thanks : D Being a "newbie" myself I had to learn the hard way. But now I try to verify and evaluate the source for everything.

    4. I totally agree with all the comments regarding anything posted in a tree or that is family legend.
      However, just this weekend I have found a treasure trove of info by searching the internet on variations of an ancestors surname. These include the letters of Gov. Clinton of NY Revolutionary War; letters of Revolutionary Officers; records of a church that were made in 1781; etc.
      I think we have to differentiate about what we find.
      Further, I am very annoyed when misinformation is repeated ad infinitum. This is why I don't what to put anything online that someone else will pick up and promulgate.