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

Sunday, September 2, 2012

What if I find my genealogy in a book

There are thousands and thousands of compiled family histories. Many of these are surname books, tracing the descendents of a remote ancestor of the author or authors or tracing the pedigree of the author. Sometimes these books have both, an ancestral pedigree of the remote ancestor and a list of all of the descendents. Some of the most popular and prominent of these in the United States, trace the descendents of the Mayflower passengers who arrived in North America in 1620 in what is now Massachusetts. It is estimated that there may be as many as 35 million people worldwide who can claim ancestry to the Mayflower passengers. See Mayflower Descendants, FamilyTree Magazine.

It doesn't really matter if this is true or not, I have met a number of people who were desperately trying to "prove" their relationship to the Mayflower or some Revolutionary soldier or even, an Indian. The reasons for such efforts vary. For example, here in Arizona many people want to prove relationship to an Indian to claim tribal benefits.

Back to the question at hand. What about compiled (i.e. printed in a book) genealogies? Unless your ancestor wrote his or her own history or autobiography, these sources are almost all derivative in nature. I could spend a day or more talking about evidence and whether or not to rely on derivative evidence, but that is another topic. What is important when looking at any derivative source is to evaluate the original source provided by the author and determine the reliability of the material.

There is a vast difference between say, the Five Generations Project books, also called the Silver books from the General Society of Mayflower Descendants and "John Doe and his family" by Richard Roe with no citations to any sources and obvious errors in places and dates. What I fear is that many researchers don't know the difference.

I have several surname and family history books about my own family and I have just learned of another one I had not heard of before. I don't want to pick on any one of them in particular, but I will give some examples from a book about Sidney Tanner, my Great-great-grandfather. Here is the reference to the book:

De Brouwer, Elizabeth. Sidney Tanner, His Ancestors and Descendants: Pioneer Freighter of the West, 1809-1895. Salt Lake City, Utah (4545 S. 2760 E., Salt Lake City 84117): S. Tanner Family Organization, 1982.

This is one of those books where I can find my own name listed. In this case on page 476. OK, so many people, who do not know such books exist, are thrilled to see their name in print. In my case, the book is useful to look up people to see if we are related and how we are related, but for genealogy, it is almost useless. The book has only a very few sketchy sources listed and those that are listed are copied verbatim from an earlier book. I fully realize the massive amount of effort necessary to track down thousands of descendents of a particular ancestor, but as far as my own genealogy is concerned, the book is almost useless.

As an interesting side note, despite the existence of this and other books about the Tanners, there is a massive amount of wrong information in and in FamilySearch's Family Tree. It appears that many people can't even copy the book accurately.

So, here are some questions to ask about any surname or compiled genealogy book.

  • Are there sources listed for the facts alleged? If not, the book is a suggestion, not fact.
  • Is the information logical and believable? Does the book start out showing you a Coat of Arms from England before citing any possible relationships to the owners of those Arms?
  • Does the book start with speculation about the origin of the family name? Before you get to speculations about family names, you need a solidly proved genealogy back to the remote ancestor. 
  • Does the book omit certain family members because they aren't "acceptable." One of my surname books omits information about my ancestor's third wife because the authors didn't acknowledge her.
There are more questions that could be asked, but I hope you get the point.  Surname books can be a treasure or a trap.

1 comment:

  1. These are good things to consider when evaluating information found in books. I have found my Azorean ancestors in two books. In both cases, these are lines in the mid-1400s to mid-1500s on the island of Sao Miguel. One book was compiled during the time period while another was a more recent creation. Both books are valuable to Azorean researchers. However, because the early records are non-existent or not readily available, a researcher will always have some skepticism about the veracity of the information.