Satisfactory accounts

Alicia Crane WilliamsIn my blog post The Wings of a dilemma, I bemoaned the fact that although so much has been published about the Wing family over the years, I could not find a “satisfactory” account of the early Wing family. Raymond Wing of The Wing Family Association has kindly brought me up to speed on what is new with the Wings, including baptisms for the two oldest children of John and Deborah Wing discovered since the 2006 Wing genealogy was published. Thank you, Raymond. These baptisms are posted on the Wing website, but I evidently missed them because I found no link to those records from the other pages on the site to alert me that they were there. This will eventually bring us to discuss the dilemma: “If we have the information, how to we lead people to it?”

But first, what is, or is not, a “satisfactory” account?

  • It is not a 100-year old publication. No matter how good our predecessors were, they simply did not have access to all of the material we have today.
  • It contains full citations to as much primary material as possible. The methodology we use today is very different from what was used even thirty or fifty years ago. Original sources are key. It is not at all unusual for previous transcriptions of a will or deed to be found to be incomplete or misinterpreted when compared to the original. If we must rely on abstracts or transcriptions of material that we cannot now access, it must always be with caution.
  • It is as succinct and clear as possible. Verbiage used in nineteenth century accounts is not necessary when we are looking for facts and documentation.
  • It is as complete as possible, incorporating all available information as of its publication, showing that due diligence has been done to collect this information.
  • It “tests all the theories.” Inevitably, various published accounts will contain contradictions – some small, some large. It is not enough for authors to present only the version that they feel is correct, or more likely to be correct, without also presenting all other theories and discussing why they have been disproved or are questionable.
  • It must be as accessible as possible. Today, that involves the ability to locate the account, or discover where an account may be located, not only at a library but through the Internet. A great genealogical treatise that readers don’t know about or cannot access is wasted.

Any other suggestions?

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

31 thoughts on “Satisfactory accounts

  1. This issue of finding recent information, particularly on the Internet, but also in other locations, is worth a wide-ranging discussion. Are there some ideas that could facilitate this?
    There are hundreds of places to post on blogs, forums, etc., but they are very disconnected, or specific to a surname or location. Internet searches are far more robust than before, but a search will not find everything, as you describe in your work on the Wing family.

    1. Carole, yes, this is an important topic. How do we centralize fragmented information and at the same time assure quality? That will keep us going for a while.

      1. On centralizing fragmented information:
        There are many concerns, one is about very old books that still are used as source material, but the books have no documented sources. Subsequent documentation has provided corrections, but even the new information is not widely known, or in print. Example about Capt. Michael Pierce/Peirce (~d. 26 Mar. 1676) – Savage lists a daughter named Deborah [whose name does not appear in the will], but does not list a daughter named Sarah [whose name does appear in the will]. Deane’s Scituate also lists a daughter named Sarah, and that his second wife was Ruth, which is incorrect, she was Ann (__) Allen. A later example, is the recently published book, Maine Families in 1790. While the editors note that some information came from earlier sources, and some as late as 1960. This book still has Zebulon Drew (1721-1797) with a son Daniel, also incorrect. Daniel Drew (1754-1826) was the son of Clement Drew and Betsey (__), per a Bible record donated to NEHGS [Mss A3510]. Last thought – If a well-researched and documented book is just sitting on the shelf of a genealogical organization or library, it is not very useful if the researcher lives 2,000 miles away, and there is no full description of the contents. So, getting well-documented information out is a good thing. The caveat being that just putting it on the internet also means that it stays out there in cyberspace, even when updated information is subsequently posted. Articles written for genealogical journals can provide new information, but these, too, require membership to quite a few organizations in order to access them. I am not advocating free, however. It just takes additional effort and money. I do wish would do a better job of encouraging quality research instead of promoting how easy it is to create tree with those little shaking leaves.

        1. Carole, Projects such as Great Migration and Early Families are just a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done. We need to encourage more people to learn how to present their cases with the best genealogical methodology. Perhaps it will be a peer review system of some kind.

  2. I find that, if someone points out an inaccuracy or inconsistency, on for instance, that person will often respond defensively. Please remember that it benefits everyone researching an individual/family to have as accurate information as possible, so please refrain from “shooting the messenger”.

    1. Alas, we are all too human. ANY criticism is first taken as personal. You have to learn how to suppress that urge — each and every time.

      Which is why “peer review” at the formal academic level is done “blind”. The less you know about the reviewers, the more objectively you can consider their comments. Vice versa.

      Those results than pass through editors who you will know but because they have a formal role–editors–enables you to continue to discount the personal side. What Henry Hoff and Helen Ullmann did to my short article on Mary Bulkeley that appeared in The Register was, well, “interesting” and highly educative! And the results were far far better than it warranted.

      But “face-to-face” in posts at Rootsweb or Ancestry? There are no such procedural or human buffers.

      Best of luck to us all when/if posting corrections. I have really stopped doing so, preferring to apply my time and efforts to getting my own current work done correctly.

      Keep you powder dry, both ways.

    2. It is often hard for all of us to remember that the written word has no nuance in the way that spoken words do. Something we may have written in a positive way can come out the other end completely opposite to what we meant!

  3. I am really interested in creating a website of the records I have collected on the Gross family. I would like to have it accessible to the ‘world’ and the ability for any one to submit requests for updates or changes to the information in it. Do you have any suggestions or ideas for me to check out. Thank you. Jeanine Lawrence

    1. Create your own website. First decide on host as platform using cost and sophistication criteria. The latter includes answering questions for yourself such as how easy is it for me to edit the pages, etc.? Shop around.

      Ancestry has mothballed but rootsweb is still running. That works best with Family Tree Maker.

      Or just license space from a provider so that you can have your own unique URL, say “”. You can then use the web posting features on your present genealogy database to create the pages.

      The advantage over just posting at Ancestry? You own the content, and (for now) it would be free for users.

      Free to users, that is, so long as you pay the annual fee to the host!

      Thus, some form of print format, for long-term use and preservation, should be planned for concurrently.

      While my Paine Family of Freetown, Massachusetts self-published books are long in “revision” now, I periodically ship updates to the Old Colony Historical Society in Taunton as my designated repository. Any “final” version will likely get a trade-paperback self-published edition of say 500 copies, one of each I will then ship to all major institutions, one of which will create the OCLC entry searchable by anyone.

      1. Bob thanks, although that technology is still above some of our “pay grades.” Undoubtedly, it has to be a multi-system solution including hard copy, electronic copy, etc. It will sort itself out, I am sure, eventually.

      2. Many people use free blog services to post their genealogical research and invite discussion. Some of these are very stable and user-friendly, with options for how material is presented. I prefer to use a blog format rather than a website, for the flexibility and features available, as well as the ease of use. I am most familiar with Blogger, but there are others available as well. Searching sites using key words is a snap, and it does not take long to get on the search engines.

      1. Valerie, I have (and should take this opportunity to point out that John and Priscilla Alden did not have a daughter Lydia as at least one entry claims), but I find the wiki format still too confusing and fragmented. In time, with careful editing by subscribers these accounts may sort themselves out, but I don’t see many that are using new resources, only regurgitating the old.

    2. Jeanine, Creating our own websites can still be above some of us, although it is getting more user friendly each year. Unless you are technically able, or know someone who is and doesn’t cost a lot, you will probably want to stick to posting on the existing services. That said, of course, the information is still fragmented. One thing to do is that no matter where you post, make certain you include some kind of “tag line” that can be searched using Google — say something like, Research on descendants of Henry Crane of Milton.

  4. Clear and succinct on all 5. And to the point.

    Before tackling item 5 as a VB entry, consider VB entries explicating the functional implications/outcomes of items 1-4. For instance re item 2, Anderson will indeed sometimes have a citation such as “[PCCR 5:15 cited in TAG 26:42-43]”. {A completely made up example.}

    This presentation tells me that RCA has not actually seen/read the original datum at PCCR 5:15, but because it is so well presented, abstracted, or printed in full at TAG 26:42-43, he thoroughly trusts its accuracy–but that there’s still a chance of error.

    1. Bob, I imagine we’ll be spending a lot of time on all points this year! The reference to a primary source as published in a secondary source is acceptable when access to the primary source is not easy or feasible, plus you have reasonable faith in the author of the secondary source. However, it is always a “red flag” meant to alert the reader to the fact that the original has not been checked by the author. No two versions of a transcription or abstract of “old” handwriting and documents ever exactly match, and sometimes a re-reading can lead to different conclusions. I could probably fill a blog post with some of the ones I’ve found alone!

  5. Item 5 is more and more the MAJOR issue. Corrected research will never catch up to bad research. But it is losing ground even more so in this age of uncritical, cut-and-paste online “research”. And correct stuff behind paywalls is NOT HELPING matters. (Proprietary databases are a different matter.)

    Nor is the lack of focus on general public MARKETING of the who, what, where, when, and how of corrected research. (The wonderful changes made to the Society’s entrance are an important part of that marketing effort, for instance.)

    A bit of good news is that there is an agreement this Society has with Plimouth Plantation to make available RCA’s Pilgrim up-to-date research as pdf files. His material is re-formatted as summaries at the Plimouth online site. But I only stumbled across it through a general Google search. When I tried to find how to get to those summaries from the Plimouth home page–well, I’m still trying. So, that’s not so readily available either for public access!

    And as to Wikipedia, well . . . . There’s quite a lot to be said for expert editors. Perhaps Research Services should monitor certain entries, say those that correspond to emigrators in The Plymouth Migration. (My tyro efforts re George Morton are/were only a slight improvement over the original mess, and I haven’t checked lately to see if they’ve been “corrected” in turn.)

    1. Bob, I have bad news about the Plimoth Plantation project. I don’t think it is active any more and apparently did not develop as hoped. Anyone with more information, let us know.

      1. DRAT. Can an arrangement with Caleb Johnston be cooked up, as I suspect his site gets a LOT of school hits [start ’em young with the correct info], and given his now MD role?

        Also, Double Drat as the Plimouth project has relatively genbio sketches of the 2nd generation and their children, which is convenient for me — until the entire run of Silver Books gets put up online!!!

        And alas, I’ve found out the entries had no proof-reading, re mistyped marriage dates in the Thomas Cushman sketch.

        1. Bob, Caleb has his hands full these days, which is why he is retiring as editor of The Mayflower Descendant, but I am sure he will continue his own work on his website as time permits.

  6. Unfortunately, many primary sources (Vital Records, Probate Records, Deeds) are actually becoming more difficult (and much more expensive) to obtain. Some states have closed access to all records (or records less than say 100 years ago, even death records) or have severely restricted who can access the records (such as only members of the state genealogy society).

    Several states have risen the costs of obtaining records tenfold or more. Records I used to pay $5.00 for now cost $50.00. I have heard it stated the reason is to prevent identity theft, but IMHO it appears to have more to do with profit than security.

    1. Raymond, yes, it is a “double edged sword.” Years ago when states wanted to close all access to vital records we pointed out to them that this was a “revenue stream” that they shouldn’t close. Well, they got the revenue idea! But at least the access has not been entirely closed and the “good” news is that there are time limits on what the government can keep closed.
      On the other end of the scale, thankfully, is the great explosion of older original records online. I guess it is one step at a time.

  7. Your points are well put.

    However, the first and third bullet points don’t really apply when a 19th-century account is the only one to be found for a journal article exploring negative evidence. Such an account should be accurately quoted in context of formulating the question(s) concerning why the expected data is missing.

    I doubt this problem is really uncommon. In one of my ancestral instances, the only “modern” account is erroneous guesswork at a crucial genealogical juncture. It has been copied into trees . . . .

    1. Jade, excellent point. In this list, the points are for the ideal satisfactory account, of course, and nothing is ever ideal. Many times, though, people recirculate the old books as though they are the last word, so I’m trying to encourage researchers to look for more.

  8. Another item you may want to add to the list is to document where you searched for the information, even if no information was found. By listing what you have researched, it will allow others to either not duplicate your work, or to go back to that location to verify you have recorded it accurately.

    Again primary sources are preferred, but not every event will have a primary source (births/marriages/deaths not recorded, records have been lost, etc.) It is also important to document what secondary sources (family genealogies, local histories, genealogical periodicals) have been reviewed to fill in the gaps in the records.

  9. I am all for including all the information with citations, caveats, etc. and let the reader adjudicate the information to their own understanding. Our family researchers have disagreed on a few of the more abstruse points of our families history, and after a short battle with wounded pride, it has led to better understanding all around in most, but not all cases. History is somewhat different from genealogy, and perhaps less forensic. Good research requires good citation and most importantly, gratitude to those who have labored before us. Thank you for prompting this excellent discussion and lending us your expert advice.

  10. Concerning your first point, that the information needs to be more recent because our predecessors didn’t have the access to information that we do now–I’d like to point out that some original documents were in much better condition 100 years ago than today, and our predecessors might have had better access to that information than we ever will. Unfortunately, we just have to take their word for it that they transcribed the original document correctly.

    1. Thank you. Very true for individual records. The first point is meant to address the account as a whole since new researchers will have a tendency to think that because it is old and has never been updated that it must be complete and accurate. I’m trying to remind researchers to always think outside the box and not settle for “what is there.”

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