Wednesday, April 4, 2018
What are the chances of making a mistake in your family tree?
One of the realities of doing any kind of work is the possibility of making errors or mistakes. This is a fundamental part of our universal life experience. How we deal with our mistakes and errors is a very personal matter. Some of us refuse to believe that we could be in error, but more commonly, we believe that our genealogically inclined ancestors were perfect and never made any errors.
Some of the most common errors in family trees come from orthographic and typographical errors. Some researchers assume that their ancestral names were spelled in one way and one way only. This viewpoint overlooks the fact that consistent spelling of surnames did not become common until well into the 19th Century. Adopting one form of spelling over another turns out to be arbitrary and there is no one "right" way to spell names historically.
The reality is that our "genealogy" is based on records of the past. We are advisedly limited in compiling our genealogy to what is in the historical record; right or wrong. But all of us who pursue genealogical research into original historical records, as opposed to indexes and narrative accounts, will unavoidably encounter contradictory records purporting to record the same event. This is the most persuasive reason for discovering as many historical records as it is possible to discover. Reconciling contradictory historical records is a constant challenge.
One of most persistent activities of my long involvement in genealogy has been the need to "correct" the records that have been copied and passed down from generation to generation by my relatives. Inevitably, some of our most highly cherished traditions and ancestral links have been found to be inaccurate. Some of us have difficulty in remembering what we did yesterday. Some of us can't remember the days of the week or what we ate for our last meal. Personal memory is chronically unreliable. So even though relying on the memories of our relatives and ancestors may be our only source for some information, we need to treat orally transmitted specifics and some traditions with skepticism and make an attempt to verify the information whenever possible.
You can get into a never-ending epistemological quandary if you begin doubting that you can ever achieve historical accuracy. But if you are a careful researcher and take the time to document every conclusion, you will be as accurate as is possible given the nature and reliability of historical records. If you would like to get into a more detailed analysis of the nature of historical and scientific limitations, you can begin by reading one of the many editions of the following:
Descartes, Rene. 1637. Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences.
To make any headway in our genealogical research, ultimately we need to accept the inconsistency and inaccuracy of historical records and move on to building a logically structured pedigree based on the best available historical records and substantiated with carefully crafted conclusions. We can never be absolutely certain about our ancestral narrative, but by creating carefully crafted conclusions regarding relationships supported by sources, we can achieve a high degree of accuracy.
So what are the chances of making errors in our family trees? Very high. This conclusion supports the need to become involved in an entirely collaborative family tree where anyone with information on a particular person or relationship can contribute, edit, correct or delete information. The possibility of inaccurate information remaining in such a family tree is diminished by the number of participants.