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Saturday, August 18, 2012

What do we mean when we say "sources?"

In a recent edition of the Utah Genealogical Association Journal Crossroads, Catherine Becker Wiest Desmarais CG wrote an article entitled "Restoring the Identity of Elisabeth Bair of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania: Was She a Northamer or a Wesler, and Who Were her Parents?"

See Utah Genealogical Association. Crossroads. Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah Genealogical Association, 2012.

In her article Desmarais includes 70 references citing to sources. Although numbers are not indicative of either accuracy or impressive for proving a point, in this case, every genealogist, especially budding genealogists should take at least two lessons from her article. The lessons are simple: in order to solve a genealogical conundrum it is absolutely essential to look at sources and it is further absolutely essential to document those sources in a way that others can check our research.

These lessons are sometimes never learned and the genealogical community is burdened with trashy genealogies. The outstanding example of the Deamarais article is certainly not unique and neither is it uncommon. There are many capable genealogists out there compiling, writing and publishing solutions to difficult genealogical problems. I choose the UGA article because it is particularly well thought out and extremely well documented. It is a really good example of what may be necessary to solve this type of relationship question.

I cannot but contrast the article with what I see almost daily. A trivial example. I have been working on adding sources to my ancestors on FamilySearch.org's Family Tree. I often use my Great-grandfather, Henry Martin Tanner, as an example because of the amount of inaccurate junk that seems to accumulate about him and his family online. One of my distant family members apparently decided to do some editing and changed his name to "HenrY Martin Tanner." You may think this to be a trivial problem. But why would anyone do this? Of course, there was no reason or source citation or justification included with the change. Whey would they go in and make a change at all? Especially if they were going to do something inappropriate?

We have enough trouble getting it right, without people adding superfluous errors that have to be corrected! By the way, I have already added eight original sources for Henry Martin Tanner. All the person had to do was click on any one of them to see the original documents.

The contrast between change made to the Family Tree program and the article from the UGA illustrates the polar opposites of genealogy. When we talk about sources, we mean not making stuff up. We mean looking at the documents and records to draw conclusions and telling other researchers where you got your ideas and conclusions. The capitalization change may have been trivial, but what if it had been a date or a place? How would succeeding researchers know if the change were made from actual knowledge or was merely a typographical error and why change something that is obviously correctly recorded without telling anyone why the change was made? The change made to Henry Martin Tanner verges on graffiti.

If you do not add a source citation, your work has little genealogical value to subsequent researchers. Right now, I am looking at my family line as recorded in Family Tree. Henry Martin Tanner's Father (my Great-great-grandfather Sidney Tanner) has eleven sets of of parents listed. Many of these are duplicate entries, but some list his grandfather, Joshua Tanner, as his father. How many people have this mistake in their own personal genealogies? Apparently a host of poor researchers and equally poor copyists.

Let's take an example from Ms. Desmarais and cite our sources. This is the only way that we are going to work our way out of the tangled mess in the genealogical world today. 



 

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