Age and Methodology

Although it would seem logical that an older genealogy would always be less valuable than a newer one, as we would assume that the author of the newer work had access to more and better resources and modern genealogical methodology, that is not always so.

The biggest advantage that really old genealogies have is the author’s personal and family knowledge. If the genealogy was published in 1857 by an author who was born in 1800 and contains information on his immediate family in his lifetime, one could have more confidence that he knew what he was writing about.

Typically, information from extended family was collected through written correspondence, although rarely do these old genealogies identify exactly who reported what. In some cases a genealogist’s papers may be preserved in a library archive – NEHGS has a wide collection – and a researcher might be able to find the original letter or other source, which I have done. If not, then one needs to consider when the event took place in relation to the author’s lifetime. Were there older living relatives who could have passed on information from their own lifetimes first hand? That doesn’t, of course, mean the author got her information from such relatives, but she “could have.” It also, of course, doesn’t mean the relatives remembered correctly.

“Methodology” is the fancy term used to describe the methods used in researching a genealogy.

An old genealogy may have been carefully researched even if it lacks citations to sources. If wills or deeds are abstracted or at least mentioned, then there is a likelihood that the author accessed the originals. More detail usually indicates more complete research – quotes from an obituary giving locations, occupations, and relatives, for example, rather than just “Joe moved West.”

On the other end of the stick, while newer genealogies should be expected to improve on the old ones, a strange phenomenon appears instead. Authors are still copying the first several generations out of the old book, often verbatim and without critical analysis, because the old books are “there,” and the author is not versed in modern methodology and usually more concerned with identifying hundreds of descendants who did not make it into the first book.

“Methodology” is the fancy term used to describe the methods used in researching a genealogy. Researchers gathering information for their own publications today need to fully understand modern definitions of “proof” and how to apply standards to everything that they include in their own books. Otherwise you are just “passing” the old stuff forward and probably not being helpful. If you are serious about your contribution to family history, here are two more books you should have on your bookshelves:


Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof, National Genealogical Society Special Topics Series Number 107 (Arlington, Va., 2013), available from the NGS store.

Robert Charles Anderson, FASG, Elements of Genealogical Analysis, How to Maximize Your Research Using the Great Migration Study Project Method (e-book edition also available), at the NEHGS online store.


While you are shopping, check both stores for many more useful works – perhaps a list of suggestions for your birthday and holiday gifts from the family?

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.

16 thoughts on “Age and Methodology

  1. Sometimes a branch of the family got left out of a genealogy because they didn’t want to pay their share. This happened with a book written about my mother’s family in the late 19th Century — when the genealogist came calling, my great-grandfather refused to ante up and that part of the family was left out of the eventual 900-page book.

  2. I have seen a few contemporaneous genealogies and memoirs that omitted inconvenient facts about certain individuals who were living at the time. As with all history, check the facts!

    1. Carolyn, it is a tricky situation as one does not want to embarrass living people unnecessarily, and it is a judgment call. I’ve wrestled with a few of those, myself, and have omitted some facts on occasion.

  3. Old books, and even more recent ones, have useful information, although not always sourced. The first marriage on 25 Mar 1795 of my GGG Grandfather, is referenced in the excellent 1995 book, “Early Families of Newfield, Maine”, by Ruth Bridges Ayers. She stated that the date came from a Miss Gertrude E. Hall, who copied records prior to a 1947 fire. The actual record is apparently gone, but at least there is this reasonable reference which fits perfectly with the birth of a first child. We can be grateful for some things.

  4. The Life of George Dewey published in 1898 included many thousand members of the Dewey family. It makes some very dubious claims regarding English ancestry of the Dewey family. In fact, their English origins are unknown. But I know from experience that the several Dewey authors had contact with someone from my Dewey branch who had good knowledge of my family. Births and deaths outside of New England were unrecorded throughout most of the 19th century. Sometimes, the birth and death dates can be corroborated through tombstone records or, in a few cases, probate records. Census records are not very helpful before the 1850 census. But sometimes, the Dewey genealogy is the only source. The Dewey genealogy had details regarding cause of death that could have only been known to the family, including one great uncle of mine who ingested strychnine and another who was thrown from a wagon. He was actually thrown from the wagon of a train, but close enough. And I know that a great many people rely on information in county histories that were compiled after the Civil War. This information is unverified and unsourced, but it is often either the best information available or, at the very least, offers clues for further research.

    1. Jeffrey, yes, sometimes we are left only with the book, although hopefully there are enough clues to lead us to more. However, when nothing else is found and a fact depends on one book, we just have to cite with the appropriate caveat to alert other researchers that there is still something more to look for!

      1. I agree with your caveat. There are some mistakes in the early American lines of the Dewey genealogy that have been repeated like gospel ever since the Dewey book came out in 1898. The great Donald Lines Jacobus made a mistake in one of my other early American lines and that mistake persists in trees today even though Jacobus published a correction only one year later. I particularly like to use old family genealogies and county histories to put some flesh on those old bones. In the period when the Dewey book came out, genealogists were under a lot of pressure to satisfy their rich patrons by concocting some form of royal descent or at least qualify their patrons for organizations like Descendants of Signers of the Magna Carta. I was nominated by a relative for membership in that organization based on Magna Carta claims in the Dewey genealogy. It took several emails for me to resign from membership. Obviously, very few Americans can trace their families back to England in 1215. For those not of the nobility, there are no records to go back that far. In another line, it was gospel to the American Munro Clan that we all descend from the Munro barons of Foulis. Fortunately, there is now a Munro Clan Y DNA project and we now know that few American Monroe’s descend from the baronial line, although President James Monroe does according to reports from the Munro Clan.

  5. Excellent discussion of this topic. I inherited a copy of “The Phelps Family of America” published in 1899 with the typical non-existent sources. This genealogy is well known to contain many errors, but a recent discrepancy in the birthplace of my great-grandmother was resolved by an entry that strongly suggests the author had communicated directly with my great-grandfather (her husband), including the statement that “Mr. Phelps has deeds in his possession dating back to 1733.” Wish I knew what happened to them!

  6. It is interesting when a pattern emerges. The Churchill Family in America (1904) by Gardner Churchill, which includes my grandmother (b. 1886) and her family, was my introduction to family history. The Churchill males are accurately named, and I have found no mistakes in birth/marriage/death dates or missing children, in the nine generations from the immigrant John Churchill to my grandmother, but four of the nine wives in that line are misidentified in some way in the text – wrong names, wrong parents, wrong dates. Before I learned I had to always go back to original sources, these errors sent me on a number of wild goose chases.

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