Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What drives genealogists over the edge...

Week after week, I look at hundreds of patron "genealogy" records. I put genealogy in quotes because many, not all, but many of the records are patently wrong on their face. Further, because I work frequently with New FamilySearch, I see many of those records show up in that database. It is getting to the point that I can scan down a list of records and pick out the ones that are wrong without doing anything more. Today I hit my limit of patience. I had a list of records that included the following entry:

Harriet M. Wilkinson
Born abt 1837
Massachusetts, United States

Perhaps you can see why this record caught my eye? Actually, there were several things about the record that made me immediately assume that it was either grossly incomplete or simply wrong. First, was the dead give-a-way, she was supposedly born in Massachusetts but had no exact birth date. Massachusetts records are very complete and I assumed that there was a high likelyhood that the record had not been researched and that someone had merely copied it from some other list because an exact birth date for this person existed, assuming she existed at all.

The second give-a-way was the general birth place. No town, no county, simply Massachusetts. This was probably an extracted record from a single source, likely a U.S. Census record.

So after copying down the short info above, I went to my computer to see if Harriet M. Wilkinson existed or not. Within ten minutes I found her and her husband and family in the 1870, 1880, 1900 and 1910 U.S. Census. Guess what? Wilkinson is her married name. She and her husband John N. Wilkinson and family lived in New Ipswich, Hillsborough, New Hampshire. In the same ten minute period of time, I found listed in the New Hampshire Death Records.

Before going further, I want to lay down some ground rules. Any place I search has to be readily available online. So I looked in the New Hampshire Death Records on  The next ground rule is that I search only with the available information. In this case a name, an approximate birth date and a place.  In the New Hampshire Deaths and Burials, 1784 - 1949 I found the following:

It turns out that there are two Harriet M. Wilkinsons both showing in the New Hampshire death records, one married to John N. Wilkinson and born in 1837, another married to Charles Wilkinson and born in 1834. What are the chances?

I changed my search parameters to include a birth place of Massachusetts and did another search. I found the 1900 U.S. Census with her living with a Brother-in-Law. Then I searched on John N. Wilkinson. I found his death record again in the New Hampshire Deaths and Burials, 1784-1949 in's Historical Record Collections. I also found a marriage record in New Hampshire Marriages, 1720-1920 also in's Historical Record Collections. Here is that record:

There is her maiden name, Harriet M. Stevens. She died in Townsend, Massachusetts, which happens to be about 15 miles from New Ipswich. Now I search for Harriet M. Wilkinson born in Massachusetts in 1837 in In the 1910 U.S. Census it shows her living with her spouse John N. Wilkinson (misspelled Williamson) in Townsend, Middlesex, Massachusetts living with her daughter Ellen.

Here is the point, I could go on. I spent a minimal amount of time looking. Where did the information come from? New FamilySearch. Here is a screen shot of the NFS record on the family:

I could go on about this information for a long time, but I won't. It is obvious that her name is incorrect since it is her married name not her maiden name. The birth date for the eldest daughter, 1846 can not be correct since Harriet was only nine years old at the time, and so forth and so forth.

I found the correct information from easily searchable online sources in a matter of minutes. What is the problem here people? Can't we do even a modest amount of the research and come up with some kind of verifiable and accurate information? Why do I have to see this stuff day after day? Especially, when I can't do anything about it. I am all for liberality in accepting work by beginners and those who may never have the skills to do an adequate job, but it still drives me over the edge to see work that is poorly done and could have so easily been more accurate. I didn't even get into the mess with this family in New FamilySearch where one record has John N. Wilkinson as his own father.


  1. You are absolutely correct about Harriet Maria Stevens. She was born on 1 October 1836 in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and married John N. Wilkinson on 5 November 1852 in Westford, Massachusetts. John N. Wilkinson's parents were Robert Wilkinson and Annie Duren, married in Carlisle, Massachusetts. This Wilkinson line is not a difficult one, going back to Charlestown, Massachusetts. All easily found in vital records available on line or in any genealogy library. I traced it years ago hoping it tied into my New Hampshire Wilkinsons, but it didn't. Nor the Rhode Island Wilkinsons. However, I kept the records just in case- and believe it or not, one of John and Harriet's descendants married one of my relatives in the 1870s.

  2. Thanks for the contribution. Before I saw just the name, date and place, I had no knowledge of Harriet Maria Stevens at all. What I found was done in less than 1/2 hour total research.

  3. A caveat, since I have some experience in Massachusetts VRs: There are some towns in Massachusetts for which records are incomplete. Boston is one, and it was the non-compliance with the practice of recording BMDs in the towns that a law was passed to require BMDs to be reported to the town clerk. That started in 1841, and wsas generally complied with by 1850. The 1850 and on period has decent compliane - maybe 95%.

    In general - yes, Mass has probably more BMDs as a percentage of population than any other state in pre-1850 times, but it isn't 100% complete. I do apprecaite all of the records!

  4. In his March 7, 2011 post, AncestryInsider in his blog

    paraphrased Dan Lawyer, former but recently a FamilySearch employee, as to objectives of changes projected for the new FamilySearch Tree.

    FamilySearch has several goals.
    * Make it so you don’t have to be a genealogist to do genealogy.
    * Make it easy to receive (and give) assistance.
    * Make the site genealogically sound so that even advanced genealogists will want to use it

    The tree is beset and corrupted by being based on material that was largely not founded on documentary research.

    When so many limit their 'research' to copying from internet trees or their sources, and so many do not want even to do their own internet searches, how can the first objective not clash with the third?

    In the instance you give, James, it appears that the individual who made the entry you began with either did not understand the general rule that women should be listed by their fathers' surnames rather than by their husbands' (major exceptions include in the Spanish-speaking world and in times/places where patronymic designations were not replaced by surnames until recently).

    Some tree programs will catch this sort of mistake, but if the entering individual does not understand the reason for it, they can override an error message.

    If the entering individual does not have the birth-surname, how will she/he be guided to make a proper temporary entry pending further research?

    In this respect I echo Randy Seaver's comment, and further, even when Town and Church Records in MA are very good, they are by no means complete - either for the same reasons as many items were never recorded up to the present day, or due to shunning for religious and political reasons.