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

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Does previous research leave you stranded?

In a recent blog post, I made the statement that if you are researching back into the 1600s or even earlier, you need to make absolutely sure you are not searching for a chimera. In response I got the following question from a reader:
James, I think you have hit upon my biggest issue in genealogy. When do you decide something is a chimera and end your research?

I have a family patriarch who was baptized in 1671, according to my family's records. I'm going back and verifying all of the links, and I'm really stuck here, as I can't find the baptism in question, which calls into question the rest of the research the family has done, linking back to the ascending three generations.

Do I just end the line and say "This is what the rest of the family believes, however, data does not exist to prove its veracity" or do I keep going trying to find that piece of data to make the system work?
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for online family trees to included unsubstantiated ancestral connections.  First of all, it is important to look at the dates involved in this particular issue. No matter what country this particular question refers to, research back into the 1600s is going to start encountering a significant lack of source material, particularly if the researcher is searching for evidence of a specific event, such as a baptismal record. Normally, we would search for alternate records to support a calculated date, but in this time period the options may be extremely limited.

In this case, it appears that someone has entered a date without a source. In my opinion, any unsourced information in an online family tree is pure speculation. The burden of supporting the date in question is not on the commentator, but on the person who entered the date in the first place. Unless there is substantiating evidence in sources that support this particular connection, the line is unproved and should be discounted. The researcher here can "keep trying to find that piece of data" but I would suggest that it might be more productive to step back a generation or more and see if the rest of the line is well documented. If it happens to be documented, then the focus should be on finding more supporting data for the target individual's descendants and family rather than focusing on the narrow issue of one event.

I hope this helps clarify this type of question.


  1. That's an interesting thought, James! This particular question actually precedes the "online tree era" where notes on the family were made on pieces of paper and hand copied around.

    I've had a lot of luck with this individual, finding his marriage notice in the English church registers and have a lot on his children, but things sort of founder out with him.

    I find with these handwritten notes that I absolutely *have* to visit the place in question to find the record of what was originally written in. I've hired genealogists before who didn't find anything for me, and when I made the trip, I found the research I needed. Of the 3 pages I received, so far 85% of the notes have been right on (with some mistakes for folks going by middle names, etc.). Of course, they aren't that detailed so that makes the batting average easier to achieve, so to speak.

    I'll keep working on his descendants, whom I've got quite a bit for, from England, into Canada, and then the US.

    1. Most of my original family file came from existing family group records in the Family History Library. I have been in the process of correcting and adding every since.