I’ve covered this topic before in various tips but I thought it might be time for a review and update.
Modern technology is wondrous! How I would have loved to been able to sit down at my computer when, in 1970, I began my genealogy quest. Imagine that, with a few click of the mouse, I could have brought up records from all across the country – across the world perhaps! Census records, family trees, old out-of-print books, tax lists …. Perhaps I would not now be wearing bifocals and having back problems from years of hunching over an old microfilm reader of the past. Perhaps I could have seen that that mark on the microfilm was just a scratch and not another child for whom I hunted 40 plus years!
Then, unable to hop in a car and drive across country to visit the birthing place of my ancestors, I could have put the maps away, quit begging my husband to vacation in some far-away and remote town and wait while I combed through cemeteries and the vaults of County Courthouses. Yes, the internet age is quite marvelous for those of us unable, because of finances or time, to zip to all the areas where our ancestors lived. Now it is all at our fingertips. Or is it?
Oh, yes, a lot of it is there. And … a lot of it is wrong! How many of us have accepted someone else’s findings, trusting that they MUST have it right? So, it has no documentation – so what? They got it from somewhere didn’t they? They must have been kin and talked to family or something. But, did they?
I was just reminded of this while doing a research job for a client from my own area. I know he was here; he married here and died here, this must be a simple job. But, what about his ancestry? After checking local sources and finding almost naught about him, I went to the on-line sites, paid and otherwise. What a mess! His name appeared often on various family trees, but wait! None of them agreed. There were different parents, different dates; some showing a son born 40 years before the supposed father! Wives married to the wrong one of that name. Children attached as children – to their grandparents. But, guess what? In checking one of these, 20 other family trees were built – or copied really – from this one family tree, errors and all. Only one showed any documentation; the marriage I already knew about here locally. There was no proof of the parentage, other wives never heard of … children from the wrong generation. Where did they get the information? Likely from some other family tree. I’ve previously given the example where I am shown on several family trees as married to my husband three times, the last time several years after his death. The researcher never caught the error.
Even census record indexes on line can be wrong. We MUST go and read the census ourselves, the actual copy of the original page. We cannot depend on some precious man or woman who indexed that census. We all know how hard that handwriting is to read – we discussed that last week. Well, can you depend on someone in 2013 trying to read a name from an area far from them in 1850 and trying to decipher it? As an example, which I’ve likely mentioned before. When the 1940 census came out, I went immediately to Logan County, IL where I was born – where my parents lived for many years – and my grandparents – and my great-grandparents. I could not find my parents and I knew the street address and house number where I was born; I’ve been back there. But, lo and behold, my parents weren’t indexed. Oh, I found them eventually. My mother had been indexed as a male with some unreal name. I know she had an old-time name but when I looked at the actual census, there she was, plain as day. My uncle, who lived with us for a time, was indexed as a female and his simple last name was listed as Syle instead of Pyle – again clearly written. I’ve never found my maternal grandparents yet; they lived in a town in the county with a population of no more than 300. I yet need to go through line by line to locate them.
So, what are we to do? Do we throw out all our family trees or never accept any record on line? Far from it! But you still have to do your own research!! Don’t accept carte blanche what others have shown, check it out. What’s the expression… “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” This applies to genealogy too. If it looks too good to be true, maybe it isn’t.
Use source documents. Read the census records yourself. If there’s a link to the document (and unavailable for you to read yourself in person), read it. Does it say what someone else says it says? If dates don’t line up, if something looks a little “off”, investigate to the best of your ability.
And, if you’re still sure, DON’T put it on your family tree on-line! People will copy it and trust that you must know. Either leave it off or put a notation such as “possibly could be, unproven” or some wording to that effect. Once it’s on-line without a disclaimer, its Gospel proof for hundreds more “casual researchers” who would rather take the word of someone else than dig around and find out for themselves. Yes, I use a lot of on-line resources. The family trees, though lovely, are my last resort. There are many excellent ones out there of course, but …. just to be on the safe side …… I still go to the source documents if I can, and I still tromp cemeteries and take up semi-permanent residency at the courthouse.