Sorting the Wheat from the Chaff, or Fact from Fiction

By Carol (okus) on March 16, 2010

How much should we rely on the research done by others before us? Can we take short-cuts in our own research by copying what others have done or should we start from scratch? Working out the answers to those questions is vital to producing an accurate Family Tree. No one wants to re-invent the wheel, but we do want our wheels to be round not square!!

Starting from the assumption that you really want to know who you are and which people have played a part in your genetic make-up, it is very important to ensure that you don't include someone else's wishful thinking in your tree. The difficulty comes in trying to work out what is the result of accurate and pains taking research and what is not.

There are many good tools out there that can take you to source records, there are also many published pedigrees that carry no source attributions at all, or whose attributions are references to yet another pedigree and that is where problems can lie. If you see the same fact repeated 7 or 8 times in a different pedigrees the tendency is to think it must be right, that many people can't be wrong can they? Well yes they can!

Many years ago I published my own family tree on Ancestry.com and I made a mistake with a date, instead of1892 I typed 1829 for a death record, which meant that theoretically the individual died before their children were born, so it should have been easy to spot for anyone else doing research. At the time this was the only tree with this individual in it and it was a line I was not actively working on so I didn't spot my mistake. Some years later I had more information to add to this part of the pedigree and ran a cross search. There were then 10 other family trees with my relative in them, all with the wrong date of death, all using each other as corroborating evidence. When I corrected my mistake I actually received an email from one of them telling me I now had the wrong date, and pointing out that everyone else thinks its 1829. It took some time convincing them that I actually had the death certificate and so knew they were all wrong, not to mention the inscription on the memorial.2010-03-16/okus/3d0d3f

Now it would be far too expensive to collect certificates for every individual in your tree, I have over 4,000 and at £7 a time I'd have to be plutocratic to afford it. However there are other ways of validating dates. The census is one such way, not a 100% reliable, people were often vague about their ages or lied for specific reasons but they are a useful guide. If an individual is in one census but has disappeared and his or her spouse is described as widdow in the next then the death date is likely to be earlier than this census and after the previous one. This gives you a 10 year window and so should have indicated in the example above that 1829 was wrong. As he was still there in 1891 but missing in 1901, it might even have given a clue as to the nature of the error.

Burial and church records are another good source of dating evidence for deaths, but having found a record transcript take the time to look up the original if you can. Its amazing how many transcription errors I have found in my own tree. There will probably be just as many in yours. Here you can help others, if you go to source and find a mistake in the transcript, take the time and trouble to notify the database concerned. They want their records to be accurate so won't mind and your fellow genealogists will bless you!

If you find another tree that links with yours and it has quoted sources that are more than references to someone elses tree, then you can reasonably trust them until you have evidence to the contrary, but if the source is one you have access to it won't do any harm to double check yourself.  You can also help other researchers by quoting your own sources. If you have the certificate, have seen the register etc. then when you post your tree say so, be a friend to others and you may get payback in spades.

One of the big stumbling blocks can be illigetimasy and adoption. My great grandfather was raised as the son of his grandparents, he called them Mum & Dad and genuinely thought that is what they were. Every family tree I found created by descendants of his supposed siblings showed that as the way it was. I wondered about this, partly because he was very much younger than the rest and his 'mother' was 51 when he was born and partly because on the 1851 census, when he was only months old, he was described as 'grandson'. 2010-03-16/okus/96eb9a By 1861 he was son, so this could have been a mistake on the 51, but I have a suspicious nature! So I sent for his birth certificate and found I was right, he was the illegitimate son of one of his supposed 'sisters' and because there was also a time on the certificate I knew he was the survivor of a twin pregnancy. Time of birth is only recorded on birth certificates for Royalty and multiple births in the UK.

In a stricly Methodist, Yorkshire family having an illegitimate child was the end of a woman's reputation and prospects of marriage. Families did try and cover these things up for that reason. Some years later his mother did marry, but she had moved away from her home village by then so her past could be lost. The child would also be stigmatised and for his sake his grandparents might well have hidden his true parentage. If you have doubts because of a large unexplained gap in the birth records, before the availability of contraceptives, it pays to look a little deeper.

One of the other problems you might inherit from other peoples trees is too many children! Women married young its true and had regular pregnancies but if there is more than 25 years between the oldest and the youngest - have doubts. Most women did not have children much before they were 15 and to be then still breeding past 40 is not really that likely, not impossible, but not likely. If she was mid twenties when the first was born then the time span should be even shorter - more than 20 years should make you stop and think. Because families used the same names generation after generation and all the Thomases married Marys it can get very confusing about who is the child of who. Logic plays a part, and so do census records go back to your sources and double check.

We would all like to think we descend from William the Conqueror, George Washington or King Henry VIII, not many of us actually do but if you think you do then prove it - don't rely on someone else who may just have a fanciful and convincing imagination!! One of your best tools is logic and common sense, Methusalah may be in your tree but if he isn't is it likely that great, great, grandpa was 135 when his son was born? Have fun but think hard too, its much more satisfying to KNOW the people in your tree are really your family and know something about them and their lives than to just have a full sheet of names.

Related articles:
Accuracy, Fact, Family Tree, Reliability, Research

About Carol
Carol is from the UK but has roots going back all over the globe. She has always loved history and has been researching her family tree for 30 plus years. There are still holes of course and she has found the odd skeleton, but it all helps to make the past come alive.
Other interests are dogs; she has bred, exhibited and judged Golden Retrievers for many years; building miniature homes otherwise known as Dolls Houses; Collecting antiques and last but not least Gardening.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
Truth can be Stranger then Fiction... MitchF Oct 9, 2010 2:59 AM 9

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