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

Monday, October 13, 2014

Forgeries and False Family Trees

Among the many letters and documents I have accumulated over the years, there are some exchanges between ancestors that I would characterize as less than amicable. I have also learned that a few of my ancestors were considered to be mentally unstable. These and many other issues are only the ones preserved in written documents. Through research, I have found criminal convictions and a couple of incarcerations. From time to time and particularly during the past week, I have heard accounts from others about would-be genealogists who either duplicate family members or invent families wholesale. We should not be surprised by anything we find in our families because, as my Grandmother used to say frequently, you can choose your friends but you can't choose your family.

We are accustomed to navigating our way through the rocks and shoals of family affairs, but perhaps we flounder when we realize that the documents and evidence we are finding is fabricated. How do we detect and account for fabrication and forgeries? How much of the evidence we think we uncover is falsely created. How many of the particularly juicy details we find among our ancestors' documents were and are false?

In my years of working as a trial attorney and especially during the time I was deeply involved in trust and estate litigation, I heard people tell stories that would make your blood curdle. That is, stories that would make your blood curdle if they were true. Since our law firm dealt, to a large measure, with elder law situations, we became accustomed to take many of the stories with more than grain of salt, sometimes we had to take them with the whole salt shaker.

Falsified documents, where the signatures were obvious forgeries, were not uncommon. Lengthy and plausible stories of what seemed to be criminal activity were manufactured. In that atmosphere of duplicity, I needed to be constantly on guard against falling for a believable story line that would end up making me look incompetent.

Unfortunately, as genealogists, we find ourselves swimming in just such a pool of mendacity. One of the most common, is the researcher who fabricates ancestral connections in order to show descendancy from a famous ancestor. This may not be done with an intent to deceive, but merely from an overzealous desire to impress others. In other instances, ancestral lines are fabricated out of a desire to appear competent and productive. This sometimes applies to researchers who are hired to "find a particular ancestor."  In fact, this tendency and my experience over the years, makes me cringe when someone bolsters their apparently unsupported ancestral conclusion with the revelation that they "paid a professional genealogist to do the research." This is particularly true when the person seems extremely reticent to share the source documentation with others.

It has not been too long ago that the entire LDS community here in Utah and elsewhere were caught up in a series of documentary revelations that seemed to contradict established Church history. See Wikipedia: Mark Hoffman. At the time, even the most qualified experts were duped by Hoffman's forgeries. Why then would we, as genealogists, blithely accept any written documents without close scrutiny, especially if those supposedly historical documents seem anomalous and contradictory of established historical facts? This problem arises in the genealogical context when a family accepts a particular ancestral line based on an invalid assumption, merely because that line was codified in a book or other record left by an ancestral researcher.

From my own perspective, it is always a good idea to approach any historical claims with a large measure of skepticism. I found this to be true when I discovered a lengthy pedigree purporting to be the ancestral line of the Mayflower passenger, Richard Warren. Later investigation confirmed my lack of confidence in the pedigree when I learned that there was still an ongoing (at the time) controversy about the identity of his parents, much less his entire ancestry.


  1. A few months ago our Stake Family History Committee was floating ideas for topics for our Stake Family History Fair. I proposed a workshop on research ethics, and everyone immediately took to the idea, so I'm currently preparing a presentation on the topic.

    I'm trying to catch some interest by calling the class "Becoming a Reputable and Trusted Researcher." When I finish writing up my notes, I'll send them for a guest post if you'd like.

  2. On several occasions I have been asked to expand a current Family Tree (if possible), and my initial assessment of the project was that the current Family Tree is based on false information, and can be proved to be grossly inaccurate. Alarmingly, on hearing this justifiable opinion, most of these potential clients get irate and insist that they will offer their project to a different researcher who is not going to question their [false] tree now embedded in their family lore.
    Personally, I don't see the point of adopting false but famous/namesake ancestors as your forefathers. I suppose some people are driven by a snobbish oneupmanship, even in genealogy, rather than learning about the valuable true experiences of direct ancestors.
    I would hate to think that anyone in our research community exploits these types of misguided client. If any so-called genealogist does, then a wordplay on your recent rhetorical question would be "How To Make Blood-money From Genealogy."

    1. Family Tree is a wiki. It can be corrected by any registered user. If there are no valid sources the wrong information can be corrected with sources.

  3. I don't know about other people, but I'd be really kind of intrigued - and maybe a bit excited - to find an ancestor with some sort of sordid past. Doesn't that just make all of the research interesting?

    1. One benefit of having notorious ancestors is that there is usually a lot more about them in the newspapers.