Note: Blog reader Susan found a date error when I posted this originally. Because of the date error it gave my argument faulty reasoning. I had to go back and clarify something with my husband and I have fixed the error. I am very glad to know that y’all are reading my posts that closely. I want to know if something isn’t right.
Blog reader Cathy and I have been corresponding back and forth this past week via email regarding some research she needed help with. One of the things we talked about was making sure you follow up on information you find in online family trees. Cathy then stated,
“I see what you are saying. I have been guilty of that in the past, just accepting someone's findings. But it is a little different or at least more reliable if it's info passed down through the family, right? On my father's side, a great aunt did some research (in the 60s) but she didn't really give all her sources but I have accepted most of that.”
I thought this would be something to discuss on the blog. I have two examples to present to you. The first one is very similar to Cathy’s situation. A distant cousin of mine wrote a family history in the 1950s. This manuscript has been the basis for many other family member’s research. When I started investigating my family tree 20+ years ago I too used this manuscript and considered it to be gospel. When I got my first genealogy computer program I entered the entire manuscript into it. Over time I started seeing problems with some of the data. I found some simple typos with names and dates but I also found some assumptions that had been made by my relative that turned out to be false and I also found a lot of information that he had simply missed. Had I been a more seasoned researcher when I first looked at the manuscript, I would have seen some classic signs that there might be problems. The first page started out with the classic “three brothers” story and a description of the “Family Simmons Coat of Arms.” If you are not familiar with these two problems, I suggest you find the following book:
Rubicam, Milton. Pitfalls in Genealogical Research. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, 1987.
This book is out of print but you can find a used copy on the internet with no problem. It was written 26 years ago but the advice in it is timeless and Mr. Rubicam delivers the information with a lot of humor which makes it a fun read. Chapter 3 deals with family genealogies and traditions that have been passed down and that is where you will find the infamous “three brothers” story. The information about Coats of Arms is in chapter 10.
I advised Cathy to use the information in her aunt’s genealogy as a starting point. She needs to re-research all of the facts presented and cite them properly. There is a very good chance that Cathy will find clues in this manuscript that she might not have been able to uncover on her own.
Sometimes what family members have written is your best evidence even if you can’t find any corroborating evidence and I wanted to give an example of this. When my father-in-law Gordon died in 1991 this scrap of paper was found among his personal effects.
This is not Gordon’s (nor his wife Miriam’s) handwriting. So who could have written this note and why was it found in Gordon’s belongings? James Nathaniel Young and Jessie (Fountain) Young were Gordon’s maternal grandparents and James William Young was his uncle. When his mother Lillie Belle was placed in a nursing home, Gordon took possession of a box that contained photos and papers from Lillie Belle. I was able to verify the birth and death dates of Jessie and James [the son] using corroborating documents. James Nathaniel Young is another story. I have been unable to find a burial location for James Nathaniel and he died before Georgia started recording death certificates. All I knew was that he died between the 1910 and 1920 censuses. His date of birth wobbles a bit in the census records.
In 1870 he is listed as age 21 [born abt. 1868]
In 1880 he is listed as age 122 [born abt. 1868]
In 1900 he is listed as age 253 [born Aug 1874]
In 1910 he is listed as age 384 [born abt. 1872]
In this case this little slip of paper is my best evidence for James Nathaniel’s birth and death dates. I have tried to corroborate the dates but have been unable to, however, the other two entries on the paper have been corroborated which gives some added weight to the document. I would also put more weight on the 1870 and 1880 censuses since it is most likely that one of James’ parents gave his age and the two censuses agree with each other. They are within one year of the scrap of paper which is certainly within the margin of error. In the 1900 and 1910 census, there might have been a reason why James wanted to appear younger. One of those reasons could be that his wife Jessie was 10 years younger than he was. So how would I cite this source? I actually had a hard time coming up with a citation for this since I don’t know for sure who the writer was. I opted to use the format for “Traditions” [Evidence Explained 3.45] with an added explanatory note.
Young Family Birth and Death Dates; privately held by Michele (Simmons) Lewis,[ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE,] Harlem, Georgia; This undated, unsigned slip of paper was found in the personal effects of Gordon Sanders Lewis at his death in 1991. According to Gordon’s son, James Sanders Lewis, this is not in Gordon’s or his wife Miriam’s handwriting. The three people named on the paper are Gordon’s maternal grandparents and his uncle. Gordon was known to have taken possession of a box of photos and papers from his mother Lillie Belle when she moved to a nursing home in 1985. It is possible that Lillie Belle herself was the author.
Cathy then wrote me back sounding a bit defeated and overwhelmed. I tried to encourage her saying that learning how to do effective research and good documentation/citation takes time and even the very top of the top researchers (way above me) are always in leaning mode. Laurel T. Baty, CG is certainly a seasoned researcher and at the top of her game. She put it best when she said, “I can always see how much I have grown as a genealogist when I go back and revisit previous research!” Laurel (and I) says it with happiness and that is the best encouragement I can give Cathy.
1 1870 U.S. census, Jefferson County, Georgia, population schedule, Militia District 77, Bethany post office, p. 43 (stamped), dwelling 316, family 407, Noah O. Young household; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 11 Aug 2008); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M593, roll 160.
2 1880 U.S. census, Columbia County, Georgia, population schedule, Militia District 128, enumeration district (ED) 18, p. 345 (stamped), dwelling 319, family 349, Noah Young household; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 11 Aug 2008); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm T9, roll 141.
3 1900 U.S. census, Columbia County, Georgia, population schedule, Militia District 131, enumeration district (ED) 6, sheet 10A, p. 86 (stamped), dwelling 169, family 169, Nathan Young household; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 11 Aug 2008); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm T623, roll 190.
4 1910 U.S. census, Columbia County, Georgia, population schedule, Appling, enumeration district (ED) 4, sheet 3A, p. 69 (stamped), dwelling 34, family 36, James N. Young; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 11 Aug 2008); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm T624, roll 181.
Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis