The “rules of genealogical research”: Responding to Tanner’s “Genealogy Star” blog

An image from a post on familytree.com titled “Long Lost Relatives from Across the Aisle

In late December James L. Tanner wrote, on his “Genealogy Star” blogspot, about genealogical research in the age of the internet. He wrote that “fundamental rules of genealogical research” necessitate that every conclusion cite a record or document.He added that “genealogy is not something you just make up in your spare time. The whole idea is that genealogy is based on history.” I write this post not to disagree with him, but to the contrary, to agree with him with a doubt.

In the rest of Tanner’s post, he notes how the “popular part of genealogy has evolved into a copycat deluge” with content of “record hints” ignored or dismissed, adding that there is “no way to purge the system of the old inaccurate information” meaning that such inaccuracies are “copied as well as the accurate information.” He gives examples of the “”Family Data Collection – Deaths” collection (which was “copied from copies”) , the “Family Data Collection – Births” collection (similar to the other family data collection), and the “U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Inde[x]s, 1936-2007” (which could be “accurate, but unless the person looking at the entry goes beyond this entry, there is no way to know if the information is useful”) on Ancestry.com. He ends his post by saying the following to the reader:

These are examples of the need to look carefully at the sources and to avoid copying copies. Without a general community-wide awareness of this need, we will keep getting copies of copies and preserving inaccurate information. Part of the blame for this situation lies with the individuals, but more lies with the large online companies who think they have “protected themselves” from criticism by explaining the traps but still promote the traps at the same time.

Before moving on, I’d like to respond to the above recommendations and comments. I agree that it is easy to preserve inaccurate information. However, I think it is horrible that companies like Ancestry and sites like Family Search promote bad records with inaccurate sources. So, you have to be careful with genealogical research without a doubt.

Now, let me add my two cents and personal experience.

When I originally started doing genealogy I was adding sources left and right, copying directly from family trees. These trees made it seem that the family on my mom’s side descended from English royalty. I used similar information to “prove” the link from my mom’s ancestors to a family of a similar name in England. However, this was all for naught: I only relied on family trees but little else. This meant I had to delete many individuals, deleting the “stinky” parts of my family tree on Ancestry.

Since then, my family tree on Ancestry has become a work in progress. I add and subtract information as needed, from time to time. I use “family trees” as a source but only when other sources are available.I recommend that one avoid other horrible sources like the “American Genealogical-Biographical Index (AGBI)”, “Millennium File”, “U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900” and “Web: Netherlands, GenealogieOnline Trees Index, 1000-2015” if at all possible. One of the collections looks like this:

And here is an example of what the “hints” (or the green leaf on profiles) look like on Ancestry:

In this case, both of these hints are about the right person. However, I clicked “ignore” on both because the profile of his father already listed both censuses. I Just wrote “see 1850 census linked on his father’s page” (and the same for 1860), adding in the information from his father’s page. I did this because I don’t currently have an Ancestry.com subscription, but I have information attached to pages from the time I did have a subscription.

Anyway, more to the point of Tanner’s post is a biography on Cyrus Winfield Packard. I originally was going to do the entry on Samuel Packard, which is one of the earliest entries on my family tree but I mostly cite my Packed With Packards! blog (which cites original sources), so it probably isn’t a good example of good sourcing. So, I present the following biography (with certain identifying of the family tree information blacked out) as an example of something for other researchers to emulate.

Here is the top half of the page:

Census records and marriage records are the mainstay of this biography, whether federal or state censuses (only some states like Massachusetts have them). There is also a peppering of vital records of Massachusetts, Find A Grave, and posts from my Packed with Packards! blog about Cyrus. Now, census records and vital records can be found on ancestry, but if you don’t feel like paying for a subscription like yours truly then you can look up the same records on familysearch.org. You need to create an account now, but it is still relatively easy and a free-to-use service. This is an advantage of Family Search over Ancestry without a doubt.

Then there is the second half of the biography:

It continues in the same vein as the top half. I tried my best to source every bit of information I found. You may notice that I used photographs as a source. These come from a collection of Massachusetts Land Records at http://www.masslandrecords.com which you can search free and online. I was able to find a good many land records that way, which was very helpful to telling the story of Cyrus Winfield Packard. This blog is one, maybe of the first posts connecting my Packed With Packards! blog with this one.

I look forward to hearing your comments.

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