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

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Why don't genealogists ask more why questions?

I have been going back into my family tree for a couple of years now documenting each successive generation. This persistent documentation has resulted in an interesting discovery. Every single family line on every single online family tree eventually reaches a point where there is absolutely no documentation and successive generations are pure speculation or fantasy. In short, genealogists or would-be genealogists feel compelled to add generations of "ancestors" that are entirely fanciful. My question is why? My initial reaction is to attribute this consistent lack of reality to perverse ignorance. But I think the reasons are much more complex than simple stupidity or ignorance.

One facile excuse is the unexplained phenomena of "same name = same person." But again, I think the issue goes well beyond that excuse due to the consistency of the issue. Before I go further, let me illustrate how completely universal this problem has become. I fully realize that my comments in this regard will be assumed to be founded in elitism and snobbery. But without knowing it, I encountered this phenomena many, many years ago, before online family trees even existed. Having so much "genealogy" easily accessible online merely puts this entire problem in plain sight.

In choosing these examples for illustration, I rely on a number of factors that indicate fantasy. Here is a sample list of some of the criteria for my determination that an online family line has passed over boundary of reality into fantasy.
  • My fully documented and researched information indicates that the next person shown on the family line is not known despite the existence of a name, date and etc.
  • The information shown on the family tree is entire contradictory and impossible.
  • The names on the family line are fabricated with no possible basis in reality.
  • The claimed dates and places are so inconsistent with historical facts that the information cannot possibly be correct.
I could systematically go through every single line on one of the online family trees and show that some other line continues past the point of reality, but fortunately, I have several unified online family tree programs that I can use an examples. However, in this case, I will confine my examination to the Family Tree due to the ease of illustrating the issues.

Example No. 1: My direct Tanner surname line

This is an easy example. I spent a considerable amount of time examining and researching this line beginning many years ago. My investigation showed that the most distant Tanner ancestor appears in Rhode Island in about 1680. Here is what is presently in the Family Tree.

This is my most egregious example due to the fact that there are so many conflicting opinions about this family. I will mention that "William Tanner's" pedigree continues back into the past from this point for five additional generations ending with a Matthew Tanner supposedly born in 1510.

The first problem with this line is the red icon that shows that the listed mother, Mary Babcock, was born when her listed father, "James Hall" was four years old.

There are ten sources listed for William Tanner (b. 1662, d. 1735). If you assume that these are accurate dates for his birth and death, how do you account for the existence of a photograph?

If you do not see the point of the last question, perhaps you are part of the problem. Just to start, I happen to have personally visited the documented gravesite for William Tanner and his two wives in West Kingston, Rhode Island. So I do not have to go too far to demonstrate that the information is not only impossible but also incorrect. Further, the entries show four wives, one of which is unknown.

Interestingly, all of the sources listed for "William Tanner" are for someone known as Nathan Francis Tanner.

Sources do exist for William Tanner but so far none of my esteemed relatives have seen fit to add them to the program. I have been purposefully ignoring this program because there are possible duplicates that cannot be merged at this time. I am also ignoring the problem because the line actually ends with Francis Tanner, (b. 1708, d. 1777) and there is no positive evidence that the William Tanner found in Rhode Island in 1680 is his father. There may be one more generation between the original William Tanner and Francis.

Must I point out that there are presently no records that connect my William Tanner line to anyone in England although the present condition of the Family Tree shows him with a father born in 1634 in Rhode Island, United States for which there are no sources cited. By the way, the official name of Rhode Island is the "State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations." It is also interesting that the supposed father, Francis Tanner was born in Rhode Island is 1634, two years before the arrival of Roger Williams from Massachusetts. It is strange that history makes no mention of the fact that the Tanners had already settled Rhode Island when Roger Williams arrived!!!

So here we have graphic illustrations of most of my points outlined above. Despite claims to the contrary, the parentage of William Tanner has never been established and those claiming to have identified his parents in England have never produced one document or other record connecting William Tanner to England or any other possible place of birth.

I may have failed to mention that in some cases the family lines just stop. This is a very reasonable situation and is much more preferable than making up further connections. But unfortunately, rather than admit defeat, there seems to be a tendency to continue onward with fantasy. Why?

This post is already getting long, but I will venture one more example. My Morgan line on the Family Tree goes back to 1700 to a person named "Capt. Richard Morgan" who happens to have no sources listed. However, the line actually ends with Garrard Morgan born in 1755 supposedly in Virginia, three generations earlier. Interestingly, the father shown for Garrard Morgan was supposedly born when his father was only 11 years old.

The John Morgan shown here has nine possible duplicates in the program.

By the was this John Morgan is shown as being born in Shepardstown, Berkley, Virginia in 1734. If you bother to check, Shepardstown was first settled by Thomas Shepherd in 1734 where he established a town called Mecklenburg and was first given a charter for the town in 1762. Check it out.

Irrationally, I could go back on every single line and except for the few that end before the fantasy takes hold, I could give the same, exact types of examples. Why?


  1. Whilst agreeing with your comments I must also add you may have made assumptions and the tree could be correct.

    Why do I such a statement?

    The trees in the example do not claim to be showing birth dates, from the information shown in the example James Hall may have been baptised as an adult and that could be what the image is displaying.
    There is nothing to mark whether the dates mark birth or baptism in the same way nothing shows whether the second date is death or burial.

    As to the photograph you claim t is a photograph how do we know it is not a digital image of a painting or even a digital image of a print of a painting?

    I understand the point you are making but your examples undermine your point.


    1. How would James Hall have been the father of Mary Babcock? If there are no sources or other information? It does happen to be a photograph that can be viewed in the Memories section.

    2. See, James, you just don't get it. The photograph that is on William Tanner's page is compelling evidence that photography with lasting prints was clearly invented a century before Niepce! And then you totally miss the logic of the argument: Since an photograph obviously exists of William Tanner from the 18th century or before, this is certainly some supporting evidence for the assertions and relationships for this William Tanner.

    3. You might have something there. Too bad whoever invented photography in the 1600s didn't get any credit.

    4. If the tree is showing birthdates then obviously it cannot be correct, but you have shown an image of a tree which does not note whether the dates are baptisms or births.
      Some people did not get baptised shortly after birth some were baptised as adults.
      One of the great failings of trees and indeed other records on familysearch is that often baptisms are displayed as births.
      This is not normally of great concern due to the custom of baptising shortly after birth but in cases where an individual has been baptised later in life this can lead to anomilies such as a child being assummed to be born within a few years of the birth of his/her parents.

      In a similar way you show an image and claim the image is a photograph but we have no way of knowing from the images presented whether what was displayed was originally a photograph.

      The point I am making is unless you are clear what is being displayed your arguements fall apart at the first hurdle.
      We are asked to judge by what is presented in your arguement not by what we could discover elsewhere.

    5. Nice try. From William Tanner, (b. abt 1662) to the supposed Francis Tanner, his father, b. 1634, the the conjectural William Tanner christened 22 April 1610 in Chilham, Kent, England, to the next William Tanner christened in Kington St. Michael, Wiltshire, England, to the next William Tanner born in 1537 in Kington St. Michael, Wiltshire to Matthew Tanner b. abt 1510 in Kington St. Michael, Wiltshire, England there is still not one shred of information about how these English births/christenings are connected to the William Tanner in Rhode Island.

    6. "the tree could be correct"

      Oh, man. That is the way to madness, starting with the assumption that the tree could be correct.

      I was looking at someone's genealogy yesterday on FSFT and saw a well-written discussion about why a man should not be linked to certain sets of parents. A group of descendants had gone through every person of his name in the South and traced each man from birth to death, and found that none of them was a match to this man living in the West. I looked back up at the tree and saw that (lo and behold) someone had once again reattached this man to one of the eliminated sets of parents.

      Why is it so important to people to pretend that they know more than they do? I'm working on slave histories right now, and some of the whoppers that their owners' descendants told! The elaborate fictions they created! Why could they not just say, "I really don't know what happened"? Why is that so hard? How hard is it to start with the assumption that the tree is wrong, until an examination of the data suggests otherwise?

    7. You are totally missing the point, I am only referring to one single relationship that you claim not to be possible due to a date for the supposed father James Hall being only 4 years prior to a date given for the supposed daughter Mary Babcock.

      In your blog you have made a claim that James Hall is only four years older than his supposed daughter Mary Babcock, however the image does not show whether the dates shown are births or baptisms.
      If the dates show baptisms we cannot tell when James Hall was born, he could be 40 years older than Mary Babcock the information is not there to make any assumption of age.

      That means that for the tree to be wrong the person viewing the tree must assume that the image shows dates of birth rather than dates of baptism.
      In the USA you might only work with births, I don’t know but here in the UK births are not commonly recorded before 1836 and the start of civil registration.
      That is why using UK conventions mark births as b. and baptisms as bap. (I should also point out there are other newer conventions that use other marks to differentiate between a birth and a baptism).

    8. Not totally, the "James Hall" shown is said to have been born in Westerly, Washington County, Colony of Rhode Island, British Colonies and has "Indian, Interpreter" as the christening information. The story goes on and on. He is also shown as having three wives. Mary Babcock has nine fathers to choose from in the Family Tree, some named Babcock and others named Hall. Take your pick.

    9. That might be an important point for certain entries on certain family trees, Guy, but in this case, there's a high chance that the connections to most or all of the people past Francis and Elizabeth Sheldon Tanner are entirely the imagination of creative or wishful genealogists.

      The first suspicion that a family line is invented often comes through noticing the sort of problems that James is highlighting.

      You suggest, rightly, that there may be reasons why certain suspicious-looking pieces of data may be correct, but that is *always* the exception to the rule, and should be explained when adding such sources to a family tree.

    10. So what you are saying is that you are proving that a relationship is wrong by using information you are not showing to prove your point.

      Surely if you want people to follow your logic you must show all the information that backs your assumption not just make a claim that something is obviously wrong when it could easily be correct if no other information is available.

      We must take the information given at face value you gave limited information then back up your assertions by then stating other information shows that to be correct.

      If back in your days in court you had shown only the limited information you showed at first the ruling would be you had not made your case.
      You could not turn round to the judge after he/she had ruled and say no its correct but I did not bother to show this other information to back up my claim.

    11. No, you miss my point entirely. I am not trying to prove anything. I am stating my personal experience. I suppose that I could find a pedigree that neither ended nor began to be unsupported by any document or record, but I seriously doubt it. My point is stated in bold in my first paragraph. I do not have to prove anything at all. Do you believe that there are pedigrees that do not reach a point where they end or there is no documentation. I invite you to show me one. But realistically, I yet to see one because genealogical research is inherently time limited. My examples were not proof but merely illustrations of the limitations of pedigrees. If you disagree with my opinions, that is just fine. I appreciate your comments and thoughts.

  2. Would you mind sharing what programs you do use - including on-line and personal?

    1. I use dozens of programs. In an average day, I will use more than twenty programs just on my iPhone. It might be interesting to make a list for a post.

  3. Ask questions? “Get Real”, as my grandchildren say. Like Humpty Dumpty, producing good strong genealogy is broken and – “All the king's horses and all the king's men - couldn't put Humpty together again”.

    When TV ads constantly spin – pay $$ and your ancestry is so easy – you quickly get “a leaf and then another”, you are “related to George Washington”, your family tree has already been established in our vast list of submitted family trees.

    I am disappointed by Family Search. Their tunnel vision to create one combined family tree has resulted in nothing but a humongous mess.

    FS doesn’t seem to care if you list Queen Victoria & the Easter Bunny as your ancestors.

    If any group would require “documented genealogies”, I would have automatically assumed the folks of the church would be the single shining star in insisting on careful genealogy with strong proof, since $$ are not the root of these absurd family trees, FS has created & thereby authorized.

    Am I wrong?