Genealogical Research

      Genealogical research while fascinating is full of pitfalls. Number one to me is putting too much faith in nearly all of the family websites or trees on the internet. Why? Most are completely undocumented, containing such ludicrous facts as a male fathering a child at the age of 2 or a couple marrying, even in the 17th or 18th centuries, at the age of 4 or 5. Whereas this may have been the case for European royalty in earlier centuries, it certainly wasn't the case in the Colonies.

      It is possible to gain clues from some of the better-documented sites, but absolutely everything must be verified. For example, I gained some insight into one family from a partially-documented site and therefore was able to find documentation to prove many of the assertions from the website. On the other hand, a website I visited had some ridiculous assertions: naming parents of a man with their birth and death dates in Northern Ireland when all the pertinent records of births/death/marriages in both Ireland and Northern Ireland were destroyed in a terrorist bombing in 1922.

      One has to try to look at wills, estate administrations, deeds, family bibles, pension applications, court records, etc., to gain any factual information about people. I've done this to a degree with my particular line, but only slightly with other lines. For example, few marriage records have survived from the 18th century, but at least the first names of wives can be sometimes determined by land transactions, but this is very tedious research.

     Virginia records present a different type of problem. The Virginia State Library has refused for over a dozen years to replace microfilm from their original sources to other libraries. Even the Family History Center in Salt Lake City has only a few rolls of microfilm of these records. However, they are uploading all that they have which, alas, is mostly unindexed but still very useful. I've made one trip to the Virginia Library, but it would take numerous trips to verify everything that needs verification, so, I've had to rely on secondary sources, such as Chalkley's collections of Augusta County, Virginia records.

      It is also important to understand that many vital records have been lost down through the years to fires, civil wars, insects, and carelessness. This is partly why there is so much interest on the part of serious genealogists in DNA. There is one significant "find" in my Thomas genealogy which was made possible through Y-DNA testing. I explain it with respect to the Thoma family. Without my autosomal DNA and family tree being posted at the time, I would not have been contacted by the Thomas Family Project. Based on my thoroughly-researched information, they were able to find several male descendants to perform the vital Y-DNA tests which proved to be a major link for their project and, of course, for me.

     I no longer participate actively in DNA research or even post my tree because of a complete change of focus by FamilyTreeDNA. DNA is useful only if participants have accurate family information. I found entirely too many potential relations who had performed absolutely no research and yet expected a fully-delineated family tree based on their DNA results. Quite a few were rude when asked to supply documentation. While some truly serious genealogists continue to work with it, I've elected, for the most part, not to spend my time on it.

     You also need to understand some of the issues with this attached website. Children whose only proof of parentage is cited from census enumerations in 1850, 1860, or 1870 are only provisional. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, families often took in orphaned relatives and/or even completely unrelated children, there being no safety net for these children. Sometimes, one can find this practice mentioned in Court Orders and Vestry Books in the 18th century, but this is infrequent.

     Only beginning in 1880 were family relationships explained. Some careful genealogists, therefore, have created what are known as "provisional children." I found this caused problems within my datebase. I know the children are provisional until proven by wills, estate administrations, death/burial, subsequent census, and/or family bibles. Now, you, as well, know they are provisional.

     Speaking of family bibles, there are issues with them as well. Unless you have access to the original bible or a good image scan, it may not be possible to tell if the information within can be considered as reasonably accurate. Why? Old bibles often disintegrate over time and descendants re-create the facts in "their" family bible. It is possible to determine this through handwriting analysis. If I find an image of a bible with dates beginning in the 1700s and continuing into the late 1800s-1900s all in the same handwriting, I know the names and dates have been copied. Any time anything is copied there are chances of errors - be it with bibles, wills, deeds, etc. If the family bible was transcribed by someone unfamiliar with how to accurately describe this valuable source, they may not explain the different handwriting or supply the publication date of the bible. Therefore, one has to be careful.

     Then, we come to census records. These records have their own set of issues: poorly educated enumerators who can't spell or explain precisely what information is required to the informant (example: one is supposed to use the official census date for the year, not the date the census taker visits the family, but this doesn't always happen) and incorrect information supplied by the informant. People "fudge" their dates of birth and/or the informant may not really know the year or place of birth, etc. I always enter the data exactly as it is given on the microfilm or the digital image of the census sheet. I especially am amused when somebody is said to have been born several years after they've already been enumerated. It happens.

     There can also be problems with birth/death/marriage records. In one case, I have an informant who gave totally incorrect information about the deceased's place of birth, year of birth, and even managled the deceased's name (I tend to believe the informant was suffering from dementia in this particular case). Even tombstones can have the wrong date engraved on them.

     Deed records present problems as well. They are vital in establishing not only property owned, but often are the only source for the first name of a wife. In the 1700s, deeds were often the methodology by which a man disposed of his assets prior to death, rather than by a will. Familial relationships (including marriages), as well as the timing of moves or death, also can sometimes be derived from deeds. Unfortunately, I am not fond of reading original deeds, whereas some genealogists love this task. As a result, I have relied on books of abstracted deeds, trusting in the abstractor to get the facts right. I now realize I put too much faith in at least some of these books. Recently, I went to unindexed images on FamilySearch to look at several Virginia deeds dating from 1829 to 1834 to check on a few details. I discovered that the years of several deeds were incorrect in the deed abstractions. When I double-checked some deeds from 1794-1795, I found similar errors. I have no way of knowing if these errors were caused by carelessness or typos, but it makes a difference. In one case, I was estimating a year of death based on one of these deeds so I was off by one year. I am not eager to revisit all of the deed abstracts Iíve used, but certainly will have to look at all deeds from the book in which I found errors. This does not make me happy.

     Published family histories are filled with problems. In some cases, the writer doesn't bother to check reliable records (example: a minister in Pennsylvania who wrote a book which included the Burson family but failed to consult any relevant Quaker records at all!); a writer relies on family members to supply the data (example: my own mother gave the wrong birth and marriage dates for me, as well as incorrect birth dates for my children to a family history writer); even a writer who includes false information deliberately (example: a "famous" Georgia author who, when challenged on this issue, airily replied that she did it so she would know who was using her work. Her descendants now operate a for-pay website offering this information); etc.

     Great care must be taken with any record. How close to the actual event was it created? The closer, the better. Is the record a copy and by whom and when was it copied? Did the compiler of a set of records understand what they were compiling (which applies particularly to deed records)? I could go with more pitfalls, but I hope you are getting the idea that this research is not easy.

     I believe I have occasionally referred to something as not meeting the Genealogical Standard of Proof. I use the Genealogical Proof Standard as the guide for my journey into genealogical research. These five steps are essential parts of the process that one uses to produce a reasonably accurate genealogy.

     The five steps of the Genealogical Proof Standard are:

          1. Conduct a thorough and reasonably exhaustive search for relevant information on the event, person, or relationship under consideration.

          2. Accurately cite every source used.

          3. Correctly analyze the information gathered.

          4. Address and resolve any potential conflicts that the evidence may present to a proposed solution.

          5. Provide a soundly reasoned, well-written conclusion based upon your research.