By Daniel Hubbard | July 28, 2013
A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.
—Henry David Thoreau
Reading old genealogical works can be an almost mystical experience. Not mystical with a capital “M” as in a profound experience that transcends the mundane. Rather, mystical lower case “m” in the sense of something whose connection to reality, if any, is far from clear.
I’ve been doing a lot of literature searches lately as I start on new branches of families. The results have been interesting. One article presented the story of a famous uncle in hiding with his widowed sister and the lovelorn niece who ran off to America. I also found several old articles in historical literature refuting the story and a biography of the uncle that left no room for the uncle’s very much alive brother-in-law and business partner to also be dead. Nor was there room for the uncle to be in hiding from the law while he was on official government business. It was a nice story, one I ran into repeated many times and though the girl in the story did come to America, she wasn’t who she was claimed to be.
Another search brought up so many interesting points that I just have to write about it. I’ve found two histories of the same family so far. Both were written circa 1900. One of them is fascinating. Not because the information is spellbinding or because it is terribly wrong. It is fascinating for what one can tell about the sources used. The first thing to notice is that sources are never cited. That isn’t uncommon for the period it was written. Sometimes, sources are mentioned in passing but only when two sources disagree. The sources mentioned are always secondary.
The next thing to notice comes when comparing to the original records. I’ve found most of them. The dates are full of interesting errors. The people being written about were all born in the mid 1600s. Their birth dates were originally recorded using only numbers for the months. That is fine if you understand the calendar in use then. March, not January was month number 1 in the Anglo-Saxon world before the calendar was reformed in the 1750s. This actually makes sense out of the month names at the end of the year. From September to December, the names of the months simply mean “7th month” to “10th month.” Sometimes the author of this book got it right, or at least took it from another source that got it right and sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he found sources that disagreed by two months and didn’t realize that there was an explanation. One of his sources successfully converted month 10 to December and the other wrote October.
Reading these sources and comparing them to the records also shows how easy it can be to misread. The originals are clear. There is no doubt about the numbers used for months but the secondary sources that were used must not have been so clear. If the author wrote July, the month in the records might be July but it was just as likely to be June or January. It seems like Jan, Jun and Jul become interchangeable if you are only clear about the “J” and don’t worry too much about the other two letters. As I realized what had happened I wanted to go back in time and stand over the authors shoulder, clear my throat and let him know that J-months are not, in fact, interchangeable.
For me, the highlight was a note at the end of one section which reads-
The trouble of genealogists in dates are exemplified in the “Vinton Memorial,” making Susanna b. Aug 30, 1650, and d. in September, the second Susanna b. in July and Phebe Sept. 6.*
What I find amazing is that those dates, which the author did not accept, are all correct according to the original town records—every last one of them. Most are off by two months from the dates he accepted, at least one is off by one year and 28 days, though the month is correct. Why he was sure these dates were wrong, he doesn’t say. Nor does he tell us where he got the dates he used.
One final oddity is a boy in a later generation with the middle name May. He is the only one of his siblings with a middle name. It is also a name that seems like a girl’s name, though it could be a surname, it is slightly suspicious. So far I have found nearly all his siblings in town records but not John or the next child. This isn’t a problem yet. John was the oldest, the family migrated to a place that wasn’t really organized and so the proof of his birth my be harder to find. What is odd is that another secondary source reads not “John May, b. 1697″ but “John… b. May 1697.” The placement of the “b.” makes a difference, doesn’t it? Assuming there is any truth to this, it looks like someone misread something.
- Secondary sources are, for the most part, only hints. A good deal might be correct but often a good deal is wrong. Without checking more reliable documents it isn’t possible to tell what is right and what is wrong.
- Nevertheless, a secondary source, even a less than perfect one can be a great help in finding better information. The author of this book apparently never saw the original town records but he did know which town and his dates were in the right ball park even if wrong, making it better than starting from scratch. An unreliable source may still be a useful source, if you realize how you need to use it.
- A secondary source built on secondary sources will accumulate errors. Any author can and will make errors. They will also propagate the errors of the secondary sources they rely upon. It becomes something like an archeological site where as the years progress, the objects that would be useful finds become more and more buried under new layers of soil and modern junk.
- There is more to understanding documents that simply reading them. Without knowing the context, mistakes will be made interpreting them. Somewhere along the line, someone who did not understand the way months were numbered in the 17th century read the town records and converted the numbers to names that were two months off. Someone else did not realize why there was often a two month difference between the dates he was reading and picked one or the other without stating why.
- Think about the overall nature of what you are reading. Are original records being cited? Secondary sources? Nothing at all? If sources are not indicated, how big a piece of work is it? A small book or one that focuses on a particular area whose records were all in one place and could be accessed more conveniently is not necessarily accurate but it is more likely to be accurate than a massive work that, if it had relied on original records, would require research over an enormous area. Think about what one author could reasonably accomplish.
It all gets back to the end of the Thoreau quote that started this post—What I began by reading, I must finish by acting. In this case the act that needs to follow the reading is, I hope, clear.
*Charles Candee Baldwin, The Baldwin genealogy from 1500 to 1881, (Cleveland: 1881), p 615Twitter It!