By Daniel Hubbard | September 29, 2013
I was tempted to title this post something like “Feeling Geeky” but that didn’t seem to be specific enough. There are so many things in genealogy that one could write about when feeling geeky. This is just one of them but it is one of the most important.
Statements and Support
Every statement made in genealogy should have something to back it up. It might be a document, a book, a grave marker or any number of other possibilities. If we have a statement on the one hand and a piece of information on the other, we also need to make the connection between just that statement and just that piece of information. That connection between the two is what we make when we add a source citation.
We often think about sources as having certain properties. Those properties can actually be properties of the extracted pieces of information or of the connection between our statement and that extracted information. Here are the three properties that one normally considers.
A source is usually a physical object that can be classified as a whole. The property used to classify the source is its “form.” The form can be:
- Original- It might be an actual sheet of paper, two centuries old. It might be a photograph or digital scan of the same sheet of paper. Just about anything else done to the source makes it-
- Derivative- Perhaps the original source was copied by hand, translated or abstracted. To that, some people add-
- Authored- An authored work takes information from multiple sources and produces new statements. These are sometimes simply considered as being derivative.
Every piece of information that you can extract from a source was once the knowledge of a person. An important property of that information is the separation between that person and the information that they reported. That knowledge can be:
- Primary- the information was the informant’s firsthand knowledge. The informant knew the information from their own senses. Otherwise the knowledge is-
- Secondary- literally this means that someone who saw or heard the event told the informant whatever it was that the informant later had recorded. In practice, one often considers any knowledge that is not primary as secondary simply because there is often no way of knowing how many steps there were between the observer and the informant.
The classic example of the difference between the form of the source and the knowledge of the information comes from death certificates. The source may be original and the informant may have been present at the death, making that information primary, but the certificate probably also has a birth date reported by the informant. If the informant was an adult son or daughter, that knowledge must be secondary.
There is a property that is specific to the connection between your statement and the information from the source. Once you link a piece of information to a statement that you are making, that information becomes evidence. That might sound odd but evidence is meaningless on its own. It has to be evidence for something to be evidence. Otherwise it is just information. How the evidence supports your statement is an important property. That support can be:
- Direct- One piece of information makes it clear why you believe your statement to be true. It supplies you with all you need to make your statement. If the evidence is relevant but insufficient then it is-
- Indirect- One piece of evidence only allows you to make your statement when combined with other evidence. One last type of evidence is-
- Negative- there is no information to extract from a source that ought to have that information if a hypothesis were true. You might have been told that a person lived the first forty years of his life in the town of South Somewhere. After searching relevant records that ought to record such a man—for example birth, marriage death, land, probate, census and tax—you find nothing that even contains a similar surname let alone the man in question. Your negative result is negative evidence for the South Somewhere hypothesis.
A piece of evidence carries all three of those properties with it. A source that has a form contains bits of information that derive from a type of knowledge and any bits of information that can be related to a statement become evidence that give a type of support to that statement.
That concludes the big three properties but there is something that I think might need to be added to that list because there is another property of information that I find to be useful in research.
One of the most important things about a piece of information is what is indicated about its origins. I’m tempted to say that the type of indication is a fourth property that should be tracked. That indication can be:
- Cites- The information comes with one or more citations that point to other sources. An authored or derivative source ought to tell the reader where the author found the information or what exactly had been abstracted. Unfortunately, many times there is no citation. In that case the next best thing is if it-
- States- There isn’t a full citation but there is enough of a statement made to point the reader in the right direction. An author might make a statement like “While searching in the South Somewhere courthouse I found the following among the probate records.” A clerk recording a meeting might make a statement about the following business having been brought forward from the previous year. A paper found as part of a pension application might contain a statement about a marriage record from Some Other County having been presented to show that the widow had married the soldier on a specific day. Other times things aren’t so clear. In that case the next best thing is if it-
- Implies- There is no statement about where the information originated but it is of a type that points in a certain direction. This often happens with older authored sources. A family might be listed in which all the daughters’ husbands are given without first names. That implies that the ultimate source for that information is probably a will or other probate document that lists the daughters by married name. The fourth possible value for this property is-
- Silent- You have clearly not reached the ultimate source of the information but there is no useful indication about what next step back in the chain might be. It might be that no indication was recorded. One all too often runs into useless indications, such as “A variety of records were used to create this invaluable resource.” I mentally add, “and the variety was so fabulously great that, as valuable as we claim this to be, we can’t be bothered to tell you what those records were.” Those might as well be silent. There is one last possible value for this property-
- Not applicable- you’ve got primary information from an original source. There may be more to find in different records, but you have followed this one set of indications to the end of the road.
There is an interesting bit of self reference in this property. If you make a statement, you have created something that someone else could use as a piece of information. Your statement becomes their information. Your citations, your link to the information that you used, becomes their indication for the next step back toward the ultimate source.
By Daniel Hubbard | September 23, 2013
“Hmm…I wonder if this the right family. It could be. Better check these new names and see if they clarify things…I’ll start with Reginald, that’s an unusual name.”
“Oh, what’s this? Ronald…Could that be Reginald? Better check that!”
“Wait, which window did I have that first document in? Ok, found it.”
“Here is a Donald that could be Ronald…Huh, this is strange but interesting. How does this fit? Oh, wait, it doesn’t. I’m looking for a Reginald that might be noted as Ronald but probably not as Donald. Now what window had the first document?”
“Oops, clicked the close button! I still need that! Well, it should be in my browser history…Hmm, what’s this item. I don’t remember looking at that. Better open it again and take a look. Oh yes, that! Now I remember that. Oooh! that is a familiar surname that I missed before. Now who were they?”
(Digs through database. Clicks through people with the same surname.)
“Hmm…might be the same family but nobody actually matches. Now what window had that first document?”
“Oh yes, I closed it. Where was the browser history. It was in one of these tabs. Here it is and there is the link for that document.”
“Ok, back in business. I better look at a few things to try to understand this.”
(Five new browser windows open in rapid succession)
“These don’t seem to be the same person. Time to try Google.”
“Wow, that’s a lot of hits!”
“Oh my gosh! Is that great-aunt Gladys that this site is talking about? Oh my, look at that image. I’ve never seen that clipping. Did she really do that!?”
“Wow, I didn’t know that great-aunt Gladys ever acted that way! Hard to believe that was really her. Better email the cousins!”
“Now, what was it that I was doing…? Oh yes, Donald…”
If that little dialog seems far too familiar, you may be suffering from geneADHDlogy.
Treatment is available.
Sometimes one of the most difficult parts of doing research is staying focused. There are many things that can help. Writing down a goal and documenting the steps you take as you take them can help keep things on track.
When I led meetings often in my telecom days, I learned a technique that probably has many names. I learned the name “parking lot.” It was a place to note down all the things that were said or asked that were perhaps interesting but were certainly off-topic. It was a way to ease that part of a participant’s brain that was stuck on a thought and didn’t want to let it go because then it might be forgotten. Sometimes a researcher is wise to put a thought or a document in their own private parking lot so that they can keep focus on the goal without being distracted by the possibility of forgetting about or losing that juicy story about great-aunt Gladys. Getting that straight can be the goal for another day.
By Daniel Hubbard | September 15, 2013
Genealogists deal with people’s identities all the time. We don’t normally deal with the physical reality of those people. We don’t deal with the he-is-right-there-in-front-of-me type of identity. We deal with little bits of information here and there. If we have it right, some data overlaps between sources and other data that isn’t found anywhere else extends our knowledge of that identity. In a sense that is the heart of the meaning of identity. It is the quality of being identical. That is, the person represented by this document is identical to the person found in that other document. Here there is the concept of a person as they exist on paper, being assembled from different documents. It is the concept of reuniting what had been scattered.
We also have the word “individual.” Individuals certainly have identities but the concepts run in opposing directions. An individual is literally something that cannot be divided, a unity that cannot be broken apart. For obvious reasons we associate the word “individual” with the physical reality of a person. That physical reality comes into existence and eventually goes out of existence. The nature of a person’s identity is certainly altered once the individual no longer exists but as any genealogist knows, identities remain in one form or another.
A few things lately have me thinking about identity. A document I obtained for a client is quite explicitly about identity. A local official stated that the man standing before him was someone he knew well and that he was the same person as the man listed in a group of papers that were being submitted. That official identified that man. He stated that all the documents could be properly assembled into his identity. It is a document from a small place and long ago time.
Recently there was a theft of computers from a large healthcare company. According to the company, the computers contained the identities of about 4 million patients from a span of roughly 30 years. Here again we have the literal meaning of identity. Multiple facts about individuals were assembled and held together. The person named X is identical to the person with telephone number Y who is also identical to the person with social security number Z. Group enough facts like that together and they form an identity, a thing that can be stolen. An identity is also a thing that can be protected. Unfortunately in this case, the computers did not have encryption turned on and several million people’s identities are now in limbo.
Another news story that caught my eye was a guilty plea in a fraud case in which the social security numbers of then recently deceased individuals were used to obtain tax refunds about 5 years ago. Whenever I read something like this, it boggles my mind. Any competent genealogist understands that a properly assembled identity includes the fact of death once an individual has passed away. Once a person dies, their identity should contain that detail, there is no longer an individual who matches the identity. The identity still exists but it is changed finally and forever. The Social Security Administration’s Death Master File (commonly used by genealogists in the form of the Social Security Death Index) exists to make that determination of death an easy matter, that final alteration and inactivation of the identity. Once that fact is added to the identity, once the person represented is shown to be identical to the person who has died, all the acts in which a living person with that identity can engage should simply cease. It is an identity that can no longer be used or abused. Anyone can make that determination. Anyone who deals with identities should check to see if that endpoint has been reached. Why don’t they? Why do they not perform that last vital step when dealing with an identity and see if it still has a corresponding individual?Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | September 8, 2013
The story of one part of the life of an ancestor of mine comes from his son’s obituary. It is the brief but interesting story of a long pioneering journey. It is also clearly wrong. Not so wrong as to be worthless, there are plenty of good clues but there is, for example, an obvious problem with travel during the winter. I would express it mathematically as boat + river + Wisconsin + February = impossible.
Given the description of the difficulty of the journey and the time that it was begun, I have serious problems understanding the motivation behind it. Clearly it was made but just as clearly there must have been something else going on beyond what was written.
Another problem that came up in the obituary was connected to one of the forms of transportation, “drum” boats. It gave some details about the boats but not enough for a police artist to sketch the suspect. As far as I can tell there was no such thing as a drum boat, at least nothing that matches in both name and description. There was such a thing as a Durham boat. It fits the description but is hardly what one would imagine and that presented new problems. They were simple boats but they were 40 or more feet long and required a crew to steer and pole them. Not something that a man who could never have seen such a boat could casually whip up upon reaching a navigable stream in the middle of nowhere. If he could, would he build it for the transport of his wife and three young children? Then I read an account of traveling down the Fox by Durham boat that involved shooting a seven foot drop in a cheaply built 40 foot long boat. Do that alone? I think not. Not even with a baby on board sign hanging off the back.
The man who introduced those boats to the river was named John Arndt. When I read that, it all began to fall into place. I already knew from evidence dating from just months later that my ancestor knew Arndt. Other evidence soon showed that Arndt had some connections to places along the way that my ancestors traveled and that they could have met significantly earlier. The odd timing and the use of a difficult route suddenly had a possible explanation. My ancestor worked for Arndt after their journey and if at just one crucial place along the way there had been employment, then it all just might make sense. Arndt had a connection with that place too.
When I was a kid just starting out doing research, I got a will that proved that a long-ago ancestor had been a small-time slave owner. I wasn’t thrilled to learn that and I was less thrilled to see in his estate inventory that he possessed “handirons.” I interpreted that to mean shackles. That was also not particularly nice to discover. For some reason I didn’t jump to conclusions and I researched his things and realized that I had, in fact, discovered the shocking truth that my ancestor had owned “andirons,” sinister devices used not for manacling slaves but rather for keeping your home nice and toasty by improving the air circulation around the fire in one’s chimney. Bit of a difference there and a lesson learned. The identities of all those things we learn of but don’t immediately understand can’t really be ignored. Doohickeys can make a difference.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | September 1, 2013
Ever wish you could just glance at a record and get an overview of what it means? Or for that matter, what about looking at several documents and see how they might fit together? Or clash? Or see that there is a real puzzle to solve?
The more data one accumulates the harder it can be to see the subtle patterns. On the other hand having lots of data is often the only way to have a chance to see a pattern. In cases when different evidence carries different weight there is the additional problem that what looks like a pattern if everything is taken at face value often disappears when the weakness of some evidence is considered. Other times what looks like lots of information all goes back to the same starting point
In some cases the pattern is a sort of Swiss cheese. Only by reconstructing families in order to eliminate them, can the holes of the cheese be created and the pattern appear.
Sometimes patterns are easy to spot. A birth register might contain births every two years or so with parents of the same names. Perhaps there are a few births that list only the father. With the pattern of births you can be fairly sure of the name of the mother. If you find no other records with the name of the father and a different mother, you can be more sure that you are dealing with a single family. Even if you do find another couple and there is a child born to a man with the right name and a mystery mother that is sandwiched between other, less mysterious births, the pattern may allow you to eliminate some possibilities.
Some patterns are much more subtle. Probate records often leave some relationships unspecified, others specified in ways that initially makes no sense or have multiple interpretations. Other relationships might be specified but insufficient. Terms like nephew and granddaughter only go so far without more information. You can’t instantly enter them into your database or on a family group sheet.
A probate record I’ve been looking at lists what seems to be a group of siblings without saying that is what they are, without giving a surname and without any idea of why they were being listed. All that is clear is that they don’t fit in with the people listed before or after them. There are other probate records that I’m looking at that cover people of the same name in the same town and many contain direct statements of relationships, others give hints that only become clear when other records lend a hand.
When I run into people who are likely to be related and many documents will be needed to disentangle them, I like to diagram the documents. Boxes represent people and contain any personally identifying. Different types of lines for different relationships with multiple lines for multiple possibilities. A solid line that is horizontal might represent a marriage, other solid lines are for parent-child relationships, dashed lines for grandchildren, dotted lines for witnesses and administrators of estates, dot-dash for neighbors, etc. Different colors can represent different documents if I use several documents overlapping in one diagram.
Seeing at a glance what multiple documents imply and how they might fit together can make the difference.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | August 25, 2013
I spent last week in Fort Wayne at the FGS conference. It was great to be there and tremendously exciting to be there as a speaker. It was an intense week. There was a lot of inspiration to be had but not much time to think through a blog post.
I figured I would be speaking in one of the smaller rooms since I haven’t spoken at a national conference before. My first talk was on Swedish research, a niche topic. I checked where it would be and sure enough it was in a small room. After that presentation I thought it would be a good idea to know where I’d be speaking the next morning. I was more than a bit blown away—the second biggest room in the conference center. When the signs were set up showing the next day’s speakers I thought I really needed to double check. I found this pair of signs out in front of the big rooms with my name for the second talk in room A. The picture is disappointingly grainy (click it to have a good chance of actually reading it) but I still can’t quite believe the list of names when I look at it.
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.
By Daniel Hubbard | August 11, 2013
I’m surprised every time the blogiversary season rolls around and it is time to dig out the party hat. Blogiversary IV has really snuck up on me as I try to finish writing a couple books, start another and prepare to speak at FGS, my first national conference. Every year I joke about how it is my tradition to start with a short “real” post and then throw in a summary “party.” One of these years, I’ll have to admit that it is a real tradition. Now there is a question for genealogists. How many times in a row does it take to make a tradition?
I’ve been working on a lot of immigrant families lately and something has struck me. At first I thought it was odd but then I realized that if it was true at all, there were many reasons. I think it first occurred to me when I was asked to find the places of origin of a few Irish immigrants before a trip to Ireland. All the supposed immigrants were born in America. One of the parents was an immigrant and all the rest of the parents of the supposed immigrants were themselves born in America to immigrants. There is nothing so strange about family stories being in the right direction but not completely accurate but when I thought about it there was something else going on. Men and women who were not immigrants were marrying people whose ancestors had left the same area at about the same time even though they themselves probably had no idea that was the case. I realized that I’d seen this many times before. Once my aunts learned it and told him, my father was fond of saying that his ancestry was pure British Isles. He might also have pointed out that all of them had crossed the Atlantic by 1820 with the exception of a single Potato Famine immigrant. Clearly, my father’s parents weren’t aware of that, nor were their parents or even their parents. My father’s father’s father had almost nothing but ancestors who arrived between 1630 and 1640 and he married a woman whose family had found their way to the Midwest at a different time, by a different route and initially settled in a different state but whose ancestors arrived from England between 1630 and 1640. Neither of them would have had the slightest idea that this was true.
I think I’ve seen this kind of thing too often to be random chance. Assuming it isn’t chance or just me preferentially remembering such things, then there ought to be reasons. I think the items on this list just might be part of those reasons.
- People often marry within what they perceive to be their ethnic group.
- People often stick within their religion, which is often coupled with ethnic group, so the two reenforce each other.
- Ethnic groups often came in waves because of events in their homelands.
- People in those waves often settled in specific areas, reenforcing the tendency to stick together. There might be few other people around to marry and those people may very well have something against the new ethnic group and visa versa.
- Waves of the same ethnicity that arrived at different times often settle in different areas (for example, Germans in Pennsylvania in one era then in Wisconsin generations later) so that people of one ethnicity but of separate immigration waves are kept apart.
- People may no longer be conscious of their ancestral past but still carry a cultural fingerprint that helps determine choice of spouse. That cultural fingerprint is partially determined by factors 1-5 and partially determined by their parents, whose choice of spouse was also affected by the same factors.
- People may no longer be living in an area where their immigration wave dominated directly but still be part of an internal migration that lands people from the same place together in a different place.
What does one need for a party?
A location is good to have and directions to a genealogical party ought to be specified only through lots of obscure land records. Though, perhaps Logs Vegas would be an exciting place to get together! Some people, though, prefer parties held at home.
It is also wise to know the names of the people that you are inviting.
Some people’s idea of a good party is that it should feel like the apocalypse during the party and look like a war zone afterward. Far more people find some dancing that is somewhat short of apocalypse-inducing to make for a good party. A kid’s party might even have some magic.
At many a genealogical party there is some ancestor who sits half-forgotten by themselves, but genealogists are a friendly lot and will try to get them into the swing of things. Another sort of guest is the one that doesn’t show up.
Eventually the bills for the party will come due and someone will need to do some accounting.Twitter It!
By Daniel Hubbard | August 4, 2013
I don’t remember when I first read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Whenever it was, I have read it many times since. I won’t go into much of it here, it would be well off topic. Suffice it to say that it deals with a vast sweep of the future and the decline of a great galaxy-wide civilization and its reinvigoration from a point at its fringe.
One of the ways Asimov chose to illustrate the decline was though a debate on human origins. Humans had spread so far and had been scattered for so long that it was no longer known from where the originated. As any genealogist ought to understand, origins are interesting. So in the distant future there were people who sought to locate the hypothetical planet of origin. How did they attempt to find it? They read earlier thinkers on the subject and wrote commentaries. They debated threads of possibilities mentioned by authors that had been dead for hundreds or thousands of years. The thought of sifting through whatever ancient records might exist or of performing an archeological excavation on one of the possible planets never occurred to anyone. That is simply not what one did. One read what had been done earlier and decided.
Hopefully, to any modern person, especially to any modern researcher, that seems absurd. It is fine to take guidance from giants as we stand on their proverbial shoulders but to leave it at that, not check or test is not the way the modern world works. In genealogy we always want to take as many sources as possible into account and it is the ones that were created as close as possible to the event of interest that usually take precedence. We want to get back in time to the event itself. Getting back to someone who once had something to say about events that were in their own distant past can provide clues or act as a signpost to guide us on the path, but if we can at all help it, we don’t rely solely on material created long after the fact.
Your index finger is literally the finger with which you indicate things. From that we get “to finger” meaning to be indicated as a wrongdoer. You don’t want to be fingered by an index.
One of the common statements made about conducting genealogical research, easily fits into the form of a commandment—”thou shalt not rely on the index.” Indices are supposed to guide us to records, not replace them (unless of course the index is all that survives). I can think of two reasons for that commandment and I ran into both of them in the last few days.
The first reason not to rely on the index is that it almost certainly doesn’t contain all the information found in the original record. A marriage index told me the name of the bride, the name of the groom and the date and place of the marriage. All good information, if correct, but hardly everything that the record contained. I ordered the microfilm but before it arrived, I traced the groom back to Sweden and found the name of the place where he was born down to the actual house. Imagine scrolling through the nearly randomly ordered New York City marriage records on a roll of microfilm and discovering that the groom’s place of birth was not just recorded as “Sweden,” as I’d expect, but also with the name of the house. There was no village or parish or even county named, just the name of the house followed by “Sweden.” The clerk who wrote it down certainly didn’t understand what he was writing but I did. In a genealogical sense, I can only say that it was beautiful. You don’t get that kind of confirmation from an index.
The other reason not to rely on the index is that it was probably created long after the event and will contain mistakes. Even the best indexers will make errors. Usually the indexer won’t have the in-depth knowledge that someone researching a family will have. The indexer might not even have good knowledge of the time or place that produced the records that they are indexing. Ideally, they will but you can’t base your research on it. I ran into this while researching a family in mid 17th century Massachusetts. The index told me of the death of “Ann.” Looking at the original record should something a bit different. The first problem is that after the name appeared a quite distinct pair of words, “son of.” The name didn’t even look much like “Ann.” It looked like “John.” The other problem was that Ann/John had a sister, whose death was recorded immediately below. That death was attributed to “Riley.” Now, Riley may be a fine name but in Puritan New England, it is probably only marginally more likely that Vladimir, and that is partially because we are talking about a girl. Admittedly, it was hard to read the name but it would take a lot to convince me of a little Puritan girl named Riley. The descender of the supposed “y” actually belonged to a letter in the line below and the girl’s name was Ruth, not Riley.Twitter It!
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!
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