By Daniel Hubbard | August 18, 2013
Last week I was approached by a friend that noticed that I would soon be giving a presentation that involved the word “myth.” She had thought that I was going to talk about myth in the sense of those ever-present figments of the genealogical imagination like “the name was changed at Ellis Island.”
My talk is going to be about a particular story that is of a type that slowly evolves from family story to mythological story but that other kind, the name-was-changed kind, are interesting. They haunt the genealogical landscape waiting to divert the unwary.
One of my favorites (or least favorites, depending on your point of view) is “it’s a fact because it is in print” also known as “why would someone bother to write it down if it weren’t true.” There are, of course many reasons. Lying, honestly believing something is true when it isn’t, mistakes, misreadings, misprints, records that make something clear that is disproved by records that were not known at the time of writing, things that were hypotheses but mistaken for proven fact.
In 1897 Charles Stocking published a two volume, 555 page work entitled The History and Genealogy of the Knowltons of England and America. What would happen if we followed the if-it-is-in-print-it-is-true methodology? Normally, it would be a quite arduous task to attempt to determine what parts of a work of that magnitude still seem to pass for truth. I would not want to do that enormous job but in this case the experiment has been carried out. There is another book, Errata and Addenda to Dr. Stocking’s History and Genealogy of the Knowltons of England and America.
The results might be a bit surprising. That book of errata was published only six years later and would have been published sooner at a cost of $1.25 per copy if the magnitude of the task had not pushed the time back and driven the cost to $2.25. The length of that book is what might be most surprising—158 pages. Think about that. The errata and addenda that could be prepared not long after the original work, ran to more than one quarter of that work’s length. Some of the errata were instructions to strike a paragraph or two of text as being erroneous. At least in such cases the errata are much more compact than the original with one sentence covering many. This clearly eliminates a sizable part of those volumes from the realm of “fact.” What does that mean for the prospect of doing accurate research without getting back as close as possible to the original records? What does it mean for using a work without checking what research came later?
Dr. Stocking did not write the errata but he did compose a preface for that book. I think it is enlightening both for its window into the methodology and because a significant level of inaccuracy was suspected even before publication.
When the “Knowlton Ancestry” was published the Historian called the attention of all subscribers to the almost insuperable difficulties encountered in preparing an absolutely perfect genealogical record. Some members of a family care so little about whence they came or whither they are going that they do not even answer letters of respectful inquiry. Some have such imperfect records records, and different members of the same family have such variations in dates and confusion of facts that the “Knowlton Ancestry” should contain errors, which it was then promised should be corrected.
This work, together with the complete index, has now been accomplished, and much addenda called forth by the original work has been collected by Mr. George Henry Knowlton, of Albany, N.Y., whose painstaking labor, for four years, and unselfish interest entitle him to the gratitude of all subscribers.