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

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Do we really want to know what's out there?

A recent comment raised some interesting issues regarding the relationship of the survey to starting research. The basic question is whether we really want to know what has been done previously, especially if what has been done is worthless, misleading, fabricated or all three? Does it really do any good for your future research to understand the background, if the background is trash?

My opinion is that good or bad, right or wrong, you need to have a clear understanding of what work has been done on your family in the past. Why is this the case? As George Santayana said in his Reason in Common Sense, The Life of Reason, Vol. 1, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This quote is often misstated as "Those who ignore history are bound (or doomed) to repeat it." See However, even Santayana was borrowing the quote from Edmund Burke who said, "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."

We could paraphrase this to apply to genealogy by saying, those who fail to do a reasonably exhaustive survey are going to waste time doing research that has already been done. So what if I find out all of my ancestors were charlatans and falsifiers? Who cares? Especially if I find out enough to know that the information in the book or on the family group record is not correct. In one of my last posts, I quoted Donald Lines Jacobus, saying, "Develop a healthy skepticism. Accept nothing unreservedly until proven."  Jacobus, Donald Lines. Genealogy As Pastime and Profession. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1968. Electronic version from Google eBooks.

Too bad that statement by Jacobus isn't given on a plaque to every budding and potential genealogist! But carefully note, he did not say to ignore anything. I certainly realize that there are a lot of careful and systematic researchers out there who can tell me all about the records in whatever city, county, country or continent they specialize in. But, even among that careful crowd there are still those who dismiss the work of others as not worthy of consideration.

Let's suppose you run across a printed genealogy collection tracing the descendants of a remote ancestor. First, look at when the book was written. For illustration purposes, let's suppose it was written in the 1880s. Think about it. The people who were alive at the time this book was written could have been born as early as 1800 or earlier. Their parents were probably born around 1780 or so. Their grandparents were born in the mid-1700s. Why would you dismiss the information in the book out-of-hand just because you found some errors and poor to no citations of authority. They were alive when history happened. Extending that example, let's assume that you find some blatant falsifications. Why are they there? Who was so worried about the truth that they had to change the facts? Who benefited from the change? What can you learn about the family  from the changes?

Now don't get me wrong, I have been among the first to rail against the sloppy research evidenced in surname books, but on the other hand, we have found them invaluable, if for no other reason, than to identify people in old photographs. The mistake is ignoring what has been done entirely. So what if there is a whole line of copied errors. Now that you know the "true" facts, you can correct your own work and ignore the misstatements, but don't fail to find the records in the first place. Don't ignore the past.


  1. This sounded familiar to me, I read some in Texas wanted to change history books because it did not agree with their perception of history.

  2. James, I agree completely. I often find fully qualified dates on trees without any documentation and use them as a starting point to begin my research. Lots of people make up birth years to fit their preconceived notions, but few people I think make up fully qualified dates. When I find these dates I assume they've come from a document that I am not aware of and then begin looking for the source of that information. I start by contacting the owner of the tree, but as often as not, they have no idea. Rarely have I found a fully qualified date that turns out to be bogus. On occasion, they are simply applied to the wrong individual. If we did not look at these dates, relationships, or other undocumented research, we might be missing out easily identifiable research objectives.

  3. Without accurate documentaion, it is a collection of names, not a genealogy! ie: a faux genealogy!

    Here is a link to the a list of faux genealogies available in the Family History Library in SLC. Many of these are also available in prominent research libraries elsewhere.

  4. Addendum: The list of faux genealogies appear to have been last published in 2004, so the possibility exists that the genealogies in the Family History Libaray in SLC have been pulled. I did not check the FHL catalog to determine that. However, those who may have used them before that time may want to recheck their research, if they were unaware of them.

  5. When I began my serious research about 3-1/2 years ago, the first source I used for my father's family was the flawed surname "The Stricklers of Pennsylvania." I knew at the age of 14 (70 years ago) that the book was flawed, because my aunt had submitted erroneous birth dates for her brother (my father) and myself. I also knew that at least some of the relationships were correct. So I publish that data in my online trees, citing that book as the source. Up to today, no one who has contacted me has stated that my relationships are incorrect. Several cousins have given me corrected information on details about members of their branch of the family.
    Do I "trust" the book? Absolutely not; it is unsourced and inaccurate. Is it a valuable source? Most definitely. It has helped me connect with distant cousins who know more of my family story than I do.
    I agree, find out what else has been done, and USE it but don't believe in it without verification.
    Val Greenwood also says to check previous work in Chapter 1 of "The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy."

  6. I agree that even the erroneous genealogy can provide valuable clues. Sometimes we find a person died in the cemetery [how convenient!] or was born at the Quaker Meeting House [how fortuitous!]. If you do find the Meeting House listed as the place of birth as if it were the name of a town you will likely find more records for that family in the local Quaker records, even though the maker of the tree might not be aware of the connection. You have to be ready to dig deep and use what you find. If the original researcher is available, I always write to them with the corrections. Many appreciate this and occasionally I pick up more valuable information.