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

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sorting out the genealogical chaff

Making genealogy all inclusive, fun and inviting for everyone has its downside. Here is a recent compilation of some of the name variations submitted by users of New FamilySearch for my Great-grandfather:
  • Henry Martin Tanner
  • Henry M. Tanner
  • Henry Tanner
  • Henry W. Tanner
I assume the "Henry W. Tanner" is a typographical error and the others are variations on the same name. When I move one generation back here are the variations:
  • Sidney Tanner
  • Sidney
  • Sydey Tanner
  • Sydney Tanner
What is interesting about these variations is that we are not talking about people who had any degree of controversy about how they spelled their names. Henry Martin Tanner and Sidney Tanner reflect the way the names are consistently recorded in the documents. Where you really get into variations is with Samuel Charles Bryant (another relative with no real controversy about the way he spelled his name):
  • Samuel Charles Bryant
  • Samuel (Charles) Bryant
  • Charles Samuel Bryant
  • James Samuel Bryant
  • Samuel
  • Samuel Briant
  • Samuel Bryant
  • Samuel Bryany
  • Samuel C. Bryant
  • Samuel Or Charles Bryant
No, all of these variations are not found in different source documents. Once again, there is virtually no controversy over the way his name was spelled at the time. We are not talking about someone who lived when spelling was not standardized.

Here is another example, this time with locations. Going back to Henry Martin Tanner, here are locations listed for his birthplace:
  • San Bernardino, Los Angeles, California
  • San Bernardino, San Bernardino, California
  • San Bernardino, California
  • of Utah
  • Joseph City, Apache, Arizona
  • Joseph City, Arizona, USA
  • Toquerville, Wash, UT
  • St. Joseph, Navajo, Arizona
  • Lakeside, Arizona
  • (blank)
If I told you Henry was born in 1852, could you tell which of these variations was correct? Just a hint, Joseph City (previously called St. Joseph), Lakeside and Toquerville did not exist in 1852.

Now, what is the point? The point is that there is really not much of an excuse for sloppy, poor research and even sloppier recording of information. Being expansively inclusive in genealogy has its merits, but it is important to recognize that there will be a lot of extraneous chaff generated by all those people who do not care enough about what they are doing to proof read their files before posting them online for the world to see. What is also interesting is that the people who entered these files may be dead but those who are alive have not taken the further opportunity to correct their files that have been online for years now. It is noteworthy that these entries seem to proliferate rather than move towards some kind of reasonable consensus.

Certainly, New FamilySearch is not alone in having this kind of variation. has the same issues as do most of the other online family tree websites. I quick search on the name "Henry Martin Tanner" born in 1852 returns 37,315 trees in I suggest that serious researchers and family historians may wish to avoid these kinds of websites except for initial surveys and New FamilySearch should be used for its real purpose, submitting LDS ordinance data to the Church.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly - this is why I am known by my catchphrase "always check the original document" - I'm in danger of becoming dull and repetitive, but it's so important!

  2. Couldn't resist:

  3. So right. I tell this to my classes in Family History.