Wednesday, October 19, 2016

But I Found it in a Book!!!!

... or on the Internet! Or my uncle told me so!!


When I can't verify the information in a family story,
I consider it a piece of interesting fiction.

As genealogists, we all must evaluate the sources that we use ALL THE TIME.

Lisa and I struggle with this constantly as we work with library members who come to us for help with their research. We try to gently remind them that they must have reliable sources for all of their information.

Unreliable sources fall into three main categories:
  1. Oral family stories
  2. Family trees uploaded to the Internet or or
  3. Unreliable Books
We will examine each of these.

1. Family stories are tales that get passed down from generation to generation. Most of us can spout several family stories that everyone will swear are true. But unless you have documentation that proves they story, that is all it is. A story.
Wilma Mankiller - First Female
 Chief of the Cherokee Nation

  • If you have a tradition of Cherokee ancestry, find the family in one of the several special rolls that document membership in the Cherokee Nation. Or track the family to a location that the Cherokee were known to inhabit and examine all sources on the tribe in that area. 
See why you are not related to a Cherokee Princess

  •  If you have a tradition of a famous ancestor, do your research. Work backwards on your family history from the present (yourself) towards the past to see if there is a connection. Avoid the tendency to bend the facts to support your cherished belief. And NEVER start with the famous person and try to work towards yourself.

I am not saying that family stories are useless. They can be great guideposts to help you point the way for your research. But if you rely on them without documenting them, they remain fictional stories.

2. Family trees that are uploaded to the Internet, or or Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with these sources. But you have to look at them critically. They are only as good as the research capabilities of the person who uploaded them. So many people just follow the "little green leaves" on Ancestry and accept what they find there as their family.  They may be. But most likely they are not. And that kind of clicking isn't research. That is more like playing a video game than serious researching. Then they upload their trees and perpetuate the mistakes.

Look for family trees that list where they find the information and use primary resources. If they have a way to contact the person who uploaded the tree, do so. Compare notes. Ask what sources they used.

Evaluating Family Trees on
3. Books 
 I LOVE books, as you might expect from someone who works in a library. There is a clear distinction between fiction/make-believe and non-fiction/based on fact.

However, some non-fiction books have blurred that distinction. Here are a couple of examples:
  • Frederick Virkus published a 7 volume Compendium of American Genealogy in 1925. It was taken at face value for many years and is often cited in published genealogies.  But now, it has been discredited. On page 228 of The Family Tree Problem Solver, author Marsha Hoffman Rising states that the Compendium is wrong 30% of the time.  But the Medina Library still has the books on the shelves of the Franklin Sylvester Room. Why? Because it is right 70% of the time. We expect you, the serious researcher, to verify the information within its pages in other sources. Rising's book goes on to say that "computerized census indexes have an estimated 10 to 20 percent omission rate, and a 30-40 percent inaccuracy rate." 

Bad books? Yes, 30% of the time.

  • Lisa touched on these next two books in her recent POSTThe Official Roster of the Soldiers of the American Revolution Buried in the State of Ohio and The Official Roster of the Soldiers of the American Revolution Who Lived in the State of Ohio. Mike McCann of Medina County Graves ran into this problem also and contacted the National and the State of Ohio DAR offices and got these responses:
    • From  Genevieve Shishak, Historian, NSDAR:   The volume that you mentioned–‘The Official Roster of Soldiers of the American Revolution Buried in the State of Ohio’ was not compiled by the National Society of the DAR, but under the direction of the state of Ohio, –published by direction of Frank D. Henderson, Adjutant General, and John R. Rea, Military Registrar, and compiled by Jane Dowd Dailey, DAR State Chairman of Historic Sites and Revolutionary Soldiers’ graves of Ohio, 1923-1932. Though our library has copies of these volumes, we do not have any records relating to their compilation, as this was not a NSDAR undertaking.It seems that Ohio DAR chapters collected the information contained in the volumes, in an attempt “to present an authentic and complete list of Revolutionary War soldiers buried in this state,” according to the Foreword, by Jane Dowd Dailey, who also stated the following: “The Roster is not designed as a genealogical reference book, although it may be of service in tracing pioneer ancestry.” You might wish to contact the Ohio Society of the DAR to see if they have any records relating to the compilation of this roster. 
    • Then from Laverne Ingram Piatt, OSDAR State Chairman, Lineage Research, Registrar, Jared Mansfield Chapter, DAR:“Frankly, the publication “Official Roster of Soldiers of the Revolution Buried in Ohio” is worthless. It is not accepted by National Society DAR as a valid source of evidence for service. I don’t know when it was published and I don’t know the requirements for research into the listings of the men included. Personally, I believe that a disclaimer should be pasted into the front cover of every copy of the book still in existence….. Your Fred Jones error is not the only one in the book, I’m afraid. And that’s why the book is not held in high regard.”
  • Bogus Compiled Family Histories: Halberts of Bath, OH, and Morphcor of Denver, CO, are two companies who preyed on susceptible people for years. They promised to send heirloom quality family histories. What their victims received were a few pages of generic genealogical information and a phone book listing of all the people in the country with the same last name. Halberts was forced in 1995 by the U.S. Postal to cease their false advertising. Reportedly the company moved out of state and continues operations.Morphcorp ran a similar scam and was forced by the Colorado Attorney General to change their business practices.  More information here.

What to look for in a reliable book, web site or family tree:

Reliable sources:
  • Show documentation- where did they get the information? 
  • Include complete citations so you can track their research. 
  • Use Original/Primary Sources - written at or near the time of the event by someone who had personal knowledge of the event 
  • Performs reasonably exhaustive search - see Lisa's blog from a few weeks ago Have all the records that are available been searched?
  • Completeness of Research - Is some vital information missing? Are there gaps in the timeline?
  • Analyze their conclusions. If primary source documentation isn't available, have they considered alternate scenarios? Have they scrutinized the information?
  • Resolve conflicting information from different sources. Do they use qualifiers like "probably" or "likely" to describe their conclusions that are not based on documented facts?
  • Make sense. 5 year old girls and 64 year old women do not give birth. Check to see if the information given makes logical sense. 

As always, don't miss an opportunity to learn more about this fascinating and demanding hobby. Take classes and attend conferences. There is always more to learn!

Evidence Explained: Cite History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace by Elizabeth Shown Mills
Genealogical Standard of Proof

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