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By Daniel Hubbard | January 27, 2013

Duckument* (n) – papers that reveal a terrible error. Origin- derived from the Cold War civil defense phrase “duck and cover” combined with the word document. Genealogists encountering a duckument are advised to hide beneath their desks until they come to terms with the duckument’s implications.

Classification of Duckuments

Duckuments are found in three types-

  1. The duckuments you should be thankful for because though they may undo quite a bit of work, they turn incorrect results into correct results. Never a bad thing.
  2. The duckuments that are interesting but erroneous. There is nothing to keep you on your genealogical toes than getting buzzed by a low flying duckument.
  3. The duckuments that are typically unsourced bits of compiled nonsense given to you at a family reunion by your Uncle Ned who thinks that you “ought to look into it.” You should have done a “duck and cover” as soon as you saw Uncle Ned coming.

 Type Two

I’m working on a new talk about an ancestor of mine. It has reminded me of a duckument from years ago that turned out to be of the second kind.

It all started with a family story. Almost surprisingly that story turned out to be understated. The truth was more unusual than what had been handed down. It took years to piece together the specifics and add the underlying history. Then the duckument appeared and all that research started to fall apart. Time to stop ducking and start thinking. There were some key signs that this was a duckument of the second kind.

First, this wasn’t a duckument of the third kind. It was an official ledger produced by the United States Army. It wasn’t something I could fix by hiding from Uncle Ned until the reunion was over then changing my email address.

Second, the journey that research had uncovered was an ordeal for all involved. This ledger, when read carefully, seemed to indicate that my ancestor was not on this journey and yet ended up at the same place unaided, having traveled twice as fast as the others and arrived during the onset of winter. That might even make a better story if it didn’t seem-

  1. an unlikely thing for a soldier to be told to do by the army,
  2. physically impossible,
  3. insane—his wife, who went along, would have just given birth before they departed.

Third, even though this was an official document, it was based on other documents. It wasn’t made at the time by someone who knew the particulars. It was made a bit after the fact, by a clerk who would not have known anything except what was on the papers he was trying to summarize and he was trying to summarize a lot of papers about many people. It needed to be taken seriously but it could easily prove fallible.

It did prove fallible. It also led me in an interesting direction. Among the summarized documents had to have been muster rolls. I hadn’t found them for a crucial period. I didn’t know if they had ever existed. I had muster rolls before departure and for a bit after arrival. Time to try again. When found, the muster rolls at the National Archives told the story that had seemed the only possibility before the duckument arrived, the story that had been pieced together over the years. They showed my ancestor at points along the way when I thought that he should be there. The ledger was wrong. A clerk had made a mistake.

Duckument Handling

Some rules for the proper handling of duckuments-

  1. Take a deep breath. Whatever type of duckument you have on your hands, it is what it is and you need to deal with it.
  2. You have already pieced information together. Be open to it being disproved but also realize the duckument could be wrong. Don’t jump to any conclusions one way or the other.
  3. Ask yourself if the duckument implies things that don’t seem possible. Ancestors didn’t live in a world where physical laws broke down and Alice in Wonderland weirdness was common.
  4. Ask if the duckument is sufficiently trustworthy that it really does undo a chunk of your research. It might be that trustworthy but it might be less trustworthy than your original impression. Think about its origins and how it was produced.
  5. Consider if the duckument makes sense of things that seemed odd before.
  6. Make sure that the duckument is really describing your ancestor.

*A just-made-up word, any similarity to a previously invented word is purely coincidental.

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Topics: Methods | 2 Comments »

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2 Responses to “Duckuments”

  1. Jill Groce Says:
    January 28th, 2013 at 9:13 am

    Buzzed by a low flying duckument, yes. Capt. Samuel A. Ashe, a Southern gentleman, wrote about my family and submitted his information to the local DAR chapter. Back in the 1990s I based a whole line of research on his gentlemanly discussion and now I would like to break his gentlemanly neck if he weren’t already long since deceased.

  2. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    January 28th, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Ouch! Sounds like you weren’t simply buzzed by that duckument.