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

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Collecting names vs. family history

From time to time, I encounter individuals who have huge family files comprising tens of thousands of names. These people, who I will call name collectors, seem intent on compiling the largest collection of names possible. Usually, they have absolutely no idea who any of the people actually are, but they take pride in the huge number of individuals. Name collectors are neither genealogists nor family historians. With today's technology and a few GEDCOM files anyone can have a huge collection of names. Often, these collections date back well into the Middle Ages and beyond. It is not unusual for someone to claim their genealogy goes all the way back to Adam.

I first ran into this problem years ago while doing my first survey of what research had been done in my family. I found a whole series of family group records extending the family line back and back in time to before 900 A.D. The sheets claimed to be the ancestors of Richard Warren, of the Mayflower. As the line kept going on and on, I became skeptical that anyone had actually made a valid connection between this long pedigree and Richard Warren of the Mayflower. I also soon found that no one had actually proved Richard Warren's parentage in England. As one Website by Caleb Johnson put it, "Richard Warren's English origins and ancestry have been the subject of much speculation, and countless different ancestries have been published for him, without a shred of evidence to support them." Since that time, I have found several instances in my own family of extensive unsupported pedigrees.

I find it difficult to believe that someone, wanting to claim a huge family file, would change the name of their father or grandfather to "adopt" someone with a long lineage of ancestors. But this is done all the time by name collectors with remote ancestors. They find a long ancestral line and decide they must be related. Their remote ancestor, John Smith who was a poor farmer, must have really been the famous John Smith with a huge pedigree. Historically, genealogists had a really bad reputation for doing just that, compiling false pedigrees to satisfy people's vanity and to make someone appear to be important. The problem is, the practice has not stopped. Name collectors do the same thing today.

What is the harm in having a huge family file? Who cares anyway? One problem, I have seen, is that people just starting out in family research are intimidated by the huge numbers and files. How would you feel if you were trying to find your grandfather and someone tells you they have 35,000 names in their family file? You might decide that you will never find that many names and just quit.

Some really good genealogists do have huge family files, but even professionals do not have the same level of confidence in the accuracy of every name in a big file. Think about it, if you had 35,000 names in a file and spent only five minutes looking at each one, it would take you more than 2900 hours to look at all the names.

It is also important to address the issue of quality. There is certainly more value in a well documented file with a few names than a huge file with no idea of source or validity of the names. Another problem arising from the lack of documentation of the name collector's files is that people just might believe the information. After all, it is a huge file and therefore must be true. Sometimes when I ask someone with a huge file going back into royal lineage where they got the information, they admit that they copied another file from someone else. It is not the copy that is the problem, it is the thought that the mere possession of a huge list of names is somehow validating.

Meanwhile, if someone comes into the Mesa Regional Family History Center and asks for help with a huge file going back to Charlmagne, I will still be as pleasant as possible. Maybe they really are related to him?


  1. "Maybe they really are related to him?"

    Hahaha. It is possible!

    (But I'd like to see the proof.)

    At this point in my life, the history side of genealogy is more important than the name part of it, but I find that as I research the history of the families, new names show up. I'll send you a few to add to your files. :)

    (And perhaps I should identify myself as your daughter, for all of your blogging community.)

  2. I agree with your daughter, definitely more into the history side of genealogy.
    Though new names crop up, because I try to do the historical aspect to understand the place and time I'm also finding more real information and sometimes additional connections between families, about my not quite as famous or important folks which ends up being the real treat. Thanks for reminding me why I have fun with this. Amy (also)

  3. You are one of those pretentious genealogists who vehemently abhor "name collectors" as you call them!

    Who are you to judge whether they should be allowed to call themselves genealogists or not?

    Tracing the roots of ones family, and therefor collecting names, is NOT one of the seven deadly sins.

    Sure I agree with you that people who connect themselves through bad research, even false research, to someone famous or important without proper or valid documentation of the sources is not benefical to the genealogy movement.

    But neither are you if you look down, with disdain, on people who trace their lineage without finding out every single little fact there is to know about the persons they research.

    Not all of us have the intention of writing a history book on every person in their ancestry.
    But yet we are genealogists. No matter what you self-proclaimed experts say.

    I am glad to call myself a "name collector" in the sense that I am tracing my lineage, collecting their names, dates, places and any other pertinent information that pops up.
    And should I find the time and will to do more in-depth analysis of the persons or the time they live in, so be it!

    I am however not chasing famous names. I don't care whether or not I am in any way, shape or form related to that king or that actor or that, to all americans important, famous founding father.

    By setting out to prove your greatness by connceting yourself to important persons could lead you to the path of vanity.
    This however is one of the deadly sins.

    And I am sure that this is what you, the author of this blog, are saying. However, I see no distinction between these vain researchers of me in this blog!

    Lastly, I do apologize for any grammatical errors that might found in my reply.
    English is not my first language.

  4. I suggest reading Elizabeth Shown Mills' article "Genealogy in the 'Information Age': A New Frontier?", which was published in the NGSQ (Centennial Issue 93, December 2003, pp. 260-277), also online at: