Monday, March 12, 2012

Those Pesky Surname Books

They are the best of resources and they are the worst of resources (to borrow from Charles Dickens) but they seem to pop up from time to time as background to the whole genealogical community. I probably talk to two or three people a month who are in the process of writing a surname book or just published one. Oops, first things first. What is a surname book? That's easy, it is a book about people who share a surname. Most commonly, they are books about the descendants from a common ancestor. I have a few of these myself sitting behind me on a shelf or piled on the floor. Occasionally, they go the other way around and show the ancestors of a person. I have also seen books that talk about the accomplishments of one family or individual, although it is sometimes hard to see where surname books stop and biographies begin.

This type of compilation is as old as writing itself. Parts of the Bible could be considered a surname book for the descendants of Abraham. Why are they pesky? In short, I have found very, very few that have adequate source references. Hence the problem of determining whether or not the information and connections alleged are valid or not. More and more of this type of book are showing up online. If you want to test the availability, just do a Google Books search for a surname, any surname. Here are a few of the books that come up when I search for Tanner genealogy:
  • Tanner, George C. William Tanner of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, and His Descendants. [Minneapolis, Minn.]: Pub. by the author, 1905. 
  • Tanner, Elias F. Genealogy of the Descendants of Thomas Tanner, Sr., of Cornwall, Connecticut, With Brief Notes of Several Allied Families, Also Short Sketches of Several Towns of Their Early Residence. Lansing (Mich.): Thorp, 1893. 
  • Tanner, Maurice, and George C. Tanner. Descendants of John Tanner: Born August 15, 1778 at Hopkintown, R.I., Died April 15, 1850 at South Cottonwood, Salt Lake County, Utah. [s.l.]: Tanner Family Association, 1942. 
 To do a Google Book search, look for the link under the "More" menu on the classic Google search screen. Here is screen shot showing the More link:


Once you do a search in Google Books and you find a book you want to look at, you can either read the book online or find the book for sale or in a library. Here is another screen shot, showing where the link is located to find the book in print:


The link takes you WorldCat.org, the largest and most comprehensive catalog of books on the Internet. OK now back to the issue of surname books.

The basic rule in looking at any surname book is to doubt everything and use the book more as suggestion rather than a source. If you find one or more books, you should cite them as sources but don't just copy out the information and think your work is done. Some of these books rely on even earlier books that had wrong information and the wrong information has just been dutifully copied from book to book over the years. In my Tanner line, one of the earliest books written in 1905 had incomplete information and some of that information has been copied into books published in the 1970s without the subsequent authors spending any time at all verifying the information.

I have found some books, published by genealogical organizations, to be very helpful. For example, the extensive books published by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants


How do you handle a surname book if you are doing genealogical research? Look carefully at the information and examine the footnotes or endnotes if there are any. See if there are any references to original source documents such as vital records, wills, deeds or other documents you might use to verify the claims made in the book. If they are entirely missing, or if, as is the case with one of the books I have about the Tanner line, the references are just to other surname books, then you should approach the whole compilation with a healthy dose of skepticism. If you do find a book with lots of sources, you may have a goldmine, but only if as you look at those sources they prove to be reliable. 

Here are a few places to look for surname books on your own family lines:
That probably gives you an idea where to start looking.

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