Trust but verify – again

Alicia Crane WilliamsWhat is it with these genealogists? They’ve been researching for hundreds of years, published thousands of books and magazines, and still can’t get it right! In my last post, we left off with the question, “Can we trust nothing? must we verify everything from scratch?”

The answer is no, you don’t have to verify everything – but it is usually a good idea to verify whatever you can. Those who love the hunt and enjoy being genealogical vigilantes don’t mind this little quirk about our “pastime,” but it can certainly be confusing to newcomers, especially the millions being courted today with advertisements of “easy” genealogy.

Many years ago, all historians/genealogists were amateurs, usually retired generals and politicians, but in the mid-nineteenth century, Henry Adams and his lot at Harvard created the academic definition of history and the profession of historian. Only those with proper university training on how to research, compile, document, footnote, and defend their theories could be historians. In particular, historians wanted to separate themselves from “lay people” who compiled local and family histories without proper training and discipline.

Yet genealogies are, by definition, grass roots productions. Nobody wants to read genealogies about other people’s families. So it has traditionally been left to that individual in each family who is willing to do the work as a labor of love to the best of his or her ability, with whatever resources they had, any way they wanted. Their work is sincere and sometimes very good, but as a whole entirely without quality control.

In the past fifty years or so, the profession of genealogy has been following the historians’ example by working hard to establish standards and training, but that only works for those of us who enjoy the complexity of genealogical search and proof. Genealogy will always remain a grass roots endeavor. Those who want a quick fix now have the Internet and the quite logical, but entirely misguided, expectation that what they find there has at least some validity. Perhaps the analogy would be pointing someone who wanted to buy a car to a pile of automobile parts, many rusted and obsolete, and telling them to build their own.

There is no way to separate genealogy from its grass roots enthusiasts. They are the backbone of preservation because they collect information that might otherwise be lost. We cannot thank them sufficiently for their work.

For the rest of us the task is monumental: replacing the old and obsolete parts with shiny new ones manufactured – and verified – under strict quality control standards.

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.

28 thoughts on “Trust but verify – again

  1. Wonderfully said Alicia! I often stumble over research crumbs left behind by an ancestor or ancestress and raise my hands to the sky in thanks. I am grateful for them being there at their place and time and for being as nutty as I am about tracking down those who came before us. My family enjoys the tidbits about the family that I share with them. Self appointed family historians put together the stories, hopefully we professionals can detail the sources and sort out the facts, but its the family historian who will most likely spark interest in someone in a future generation with the same need for understanding the past.

  2. Thank you for the kind spirit behind your discussion of the professionalization and creation of a genealogy “field”. My ongoing concern is that if every genealogist must redo and verify every piece of data with original sources, there will be no progress. To build on your auto example, the standardization of “parts” for an auto and the introduction of the assembly line is what created the auto industry and made transportation available to most Americans. If every person had to mine their own ore – make their own molds – pour their own iron (etc.) automobiles would still only be available to the very wealthy and elite.

    A lifetime is limited. Time is the enemy of each researcher having to redo, and re-search for every piece of information. At some point legitimate historians even agree about some basics data of history. They then can follow these accepted pieces of data to do further interpretation. Asking each family researcher to personally verify with documentation every element of each ancestors life over and over and over and over and over again…seems wasteful. There must be a way, particularly with long well-researched family lines, to develop a standard of when a “hobbiest” might accept prior work and build on it – rather than to duplicate it. As those who are developing the professional side of this emerging field consider “standards of quality” maybe there could be a process established that adds efficiency as well as accuracy. Thanks for broaching this topic!

    1. Kathy, We are in a sort of “time warp” with all of the information that is migrating out of the old books onto the Internet and then being continually repeated. There is so much to be “corralled” that re-tooling — or more appropriately said — the understanding that everything is “buyer beware,” is going to be crucial for a while. It would be ideal to have some repository of approved genealogies, etc., but the sheer number involved excludes that attempt — and genealogies with some bad information usually also have some, if not mostly, good information.

      I wish there was a simple answer. Of course projects such as Great Migration and Early New England Families are meant to help, but they are not perfect, either, and production is crawlingly slow. We’ve discussed in this blog before such alternatives as creating a website clearing house, but time and labor are scarce.

      The best solution remains educating everyone about how to verify what they can. When the words “original sources” come into the discussion, many people simply freeze. It sounds so intimidating, but here is where the Internet comes to the rescue. We can access, for example, all of the Massachusetts land records, all of the Plymouth County probate, all of the Essex, Middlesex, Worcester probate, etc., etc. online thanks to familysearch and americanancestors, with more coming every day.

      Plus verifying may simply be checking the secondary sources to see if typos have been made. Practically every old book we need can also be accessed online. You will be surprised to see how many times errors creep in — it is a lot like the game Postoffice, the message changing just a little each time it is reprinted!

      So, we need to figure out how to make this idea of retooling approachable by everyone.

  3. About the only thing I can say about Alicia’s article and Kathy and Sandy’s comments is Amen! Very well put all three of you. Thank you very much.

  4. As the “Internet of everything” intercedes and permeates all of our lives, and privacy of one’s life becomes increasingly difficult to keep in spite of our best efforts, the terabytes of information that will be available on personal histories will be staggering. It has its bad but in a way good aspects. How do we come to terms with accessing all of this information for genealogical purposes? Any futurists out there?

  5. I consider all the information from family trees and secondary sources as valuable tips that need to be verified. There are certain facts I know about my family–my parents’ birthdays, for example–and certain facts other people know about their families. I never take them as truth until I verify them, but I’d waste a lot more time than I do now, because they give me a starting point for my research.

  6. Don’t even trust will abstracts. Many times valuable information is left out. Case in point. An abstract led one to believe the daughter was dead. The actual will gave her as remarried to her named 2nd husband.

    1. Mary Ellen, exactly. When one person abstracts or transcribes something, they pick and choose the information they want. I once had a situation in which the abstract stated that son John was no longer living. When I accessed the original, the phrase was “no longer living in Massachusetts.”!

  7. Alicia, you wrote “Nobody wants to read other people’s genealogies.” I’m so grateful that you and your colleagues at NEHGS are different. You untangle our mysteries, guide us toward greater accuracy, and further our research. I’m thinking of Gary Boyd Roberts who, years ago, looked at one of my Midwestern ancestral brick walls and led me to multiple Mayflower lines. Thank you for wanting to read and help with other people’s genealogies!

  8. And when Jacobus and Holman leave you sputtering, as in “you’ve seen it, so where is the citation?” and “it is so crucial, why didn’t you abstract it?”, well, a raising of the hands along with an eye-ball roll are necessary gestures. Tucked away it is in the DLJ arcives at Yale, I’d guess, the original deed of 1733 perhaps in New Haven or Bethany CT deeds. Perhaps.

    [Holman at REG 108:291 borrowing but not referencing the same unsourced description at Selleck & Jacobus MINER ANCESTRY 63-64.]

  9. Robert, yes, even the highly respected can get lazy or make mistakes, or even suffer from less-than-sterling editors. As humans, we should expect that another human will come along, recognize deficiencies, and hopefully make useful elucidations / corrections.

    1. Yes, of course!

      And turning that redo/update into some form of a publishable article(s) is just the Lemons-Into-Lemonade Opportunity we inheritors of a vast amount of work by others actually owe them. Find some venue for Public Soap-Box Shouting we must, or, in the matter I’m trying to write up now:

      father Louis Guion (b. France by say 1631, d. New Rochelle, NY by say 1698[?]) will continue to be listed as married to his son Louis’ wife [Ancestry public trees];

      said “wif” Tomas/Tomaza (b. France say 1655) will continue to be ascribed an additional given name of “An” based on a transcription error in the published 1698 New Rochelle census [NYGB Record];

      the son Louis “Jr” (b. France say 1653) will continue to have a 2nd (or 3rd?) wife Mary (____), based on another transcription error in the 1710 Westchester census;

      and NON-existent daughter Susanna will always be married “by 1701” to John Lounsbury of Rye (grandson of Robert Pennoyer, see GM2:5), based on still another transcription error in the 1710 Westchester census.

      Had to get all that down someplace other than my 3rd re-write. Perhaps I can interest Henry or Helen.

      P.S. “An” is not Ann. It is “And” in a sentence where his is “is” and wife is “wif”. (And, no, I did not “see” that right away. I stared at it and thought about it and slept on it.)

      Wife Mary in 1710 is actually “[to]Masa”.

      IF she existed, Susanna would have either been aged 3 or 13 in 1701. BUT the “Susanna, 25” in the 1710 census is actually “And Amant, 25” who was “Amant, 7” in 1698. (I slept on that one, too.)

      The will of Louis “Jr”, now “Sr”, written 1626 but not probated until November 1632, confirms all that. It can be found at a RootsWeb personal site (Google search), but even there, the fellow doesn’t “get” what he has typed out.

      AND this also means that Jacobus’ very first supposition regarding his Lounsbury problem (that John Lounsbury married an Ann (_____) [FANH 7:1790]) is correct. Which then means that John’s brother Richard is the one who married Abigail (Thomas) Preston, both being dead by [10 April] 1733, when sons Richard and Josiah sold land of Abigail’s father Edward Thomas in or near New Haven.

      AND that’s the document I was bewailing the non-citation of in my 1st post.

        1. Oh, you’ll be getting another version of it, as John and Richard are in Torrey.

  10. Random thoughts; thank you, Gary Boyd Roberts, for his list of ten best genealogies a few years ago. Gives some of us comfort that we can leave those lines alone and work on the problems. Also, sending applications to a group like DAR is a pretty good way to filter the work…they didn’t like my primary source once, although NEHGS cited it as the best on that line- “The Family of John Stone.” After a year+ of searching, I found there were only these changes: one death a year earlier than cited, in a different township and different cemetery than that given in Stone; thanks to the local historians of Greene County NY. Still, it was worth the time, wasn’t it? I certainly know that family much better than I did before and (still) have plans to put together an addendum to Stone, if I can ever stop looking.

    1. Elizabeth, good work. Beware, though, of blanket approvals of “best” of anything. I’m the best horse rider in my family, but the rest of them can’t ride at all and it has been 40 years since I was last on a horse.

      Every book is a sum of its parts and until we assess and verify those parts relevant to our families, we can’t be comfortable about anything. But I get the sense from readers that the idea of “verifying” is spooking them unnecessarily, so we’ll continue discussion in future posts.

  11. Alicia that was a great post, thank you. As with many things the are no short cuts if the correct results are to be had. When looking for antiques there are three words I live by, condition, condition, condition. When working on the family genealogy the three words I live by are verify, verify verify. Anything seen online is treated as hearsay until it is proven. The neat thing about genealogy is that it is a lifetime pursuit. The family tree is never done as there will always be something to research and corrections to be made as more records become electronicly available and new information is found. Frankly, the fun is the chase!

  12. This is good news and bad news. I’m comforted to know that so many others are experiencing the frustrating sense of never being “complete” on family research. However, I’m haunted by the prospect of not having enough time in my lifetime to get what information I have gleaned at least generally organized enough to pass along to my younger brother!!

    1. Kay, we’re all in that club! We just try to do the best we can and recognize that we can’t do it all, though that never stops us from trying.

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