Genealogical Research

      Genealogical research while fascinating is full of pitfalls. Number one in my book is putting any faith whatsoever in nearly all of the family websites or trees on the internet. Why? Most are completely undocumented, contain 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 in one family from a partially-documented site and so was able to find the documentation to prove many of the assertions from the website. On the other hand, another website I visited had some ridiculous assertions: naming parents of William Crawford 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. Even the Family History Center in Salt Lake City has only a few rolls of microfilm of these records. I've made one trip to this 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 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 on DNA. There is one significant "find" in the Watson 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, 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.

     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 the participants have accurate family information. I found entirely too many potential cousins who had absolutely no usable information and yet expected a fully-delineated family tree based on their DNA results. While some truly serious genealogists continue to work with DNA, I've elected not to waste my time on it for the most part.

     You also need to understand some of the problem issues with the attached report. Children whose only proof of parentage is cited by census enumerations in 1850, 1860, or 1870 are purely provisional. Only beginning in 1880 were family relationships delineated by census takers. Some careful genealogists, therefore, have created what are known as "provisional children." I found this annoying because it caused issues with my output. I know the children are provisional until proven by death/burial/subsequent census/family bibles. Therefore, now you know they are 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 mention of this practice in Court Orders and Vestry Books in the 18th century, but this is infrequent.

     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 it can be considered as reasonably accurate. Why? Old bibles often disintegrate over time and descendants copy the facts into their personal family bible. It is possible to determine this through handwriting. 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 whether it be 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 in question. So, one has to be careful.

     Then there are census records. These records have their own set of issues: poorly educated enumerators who can't spell or understand precisely what information is required (example: one is supposed to use the official census date when writing down age, not the date the census taker visits the family, but this doesn't always happen), incorrect information supplied by the informant, etc. People may "fudge" their age 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 digital image of the census sheet. I often encounter subsequent census or burial information in which someone is said to have been born several years after they've previously 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: place of birth, year of birth, even mangled the deceased's name (I tend to believe dementia the cause in this particular case.)

     Family histories also can be filled with problems. In some cases, the writer doesn't bother to check any reliable records (example: a minister in Pennsylvania who wrote a book including the Burson family but failed to consult any Quaker records at all!); the 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 of my children to a family history writer); the writer 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 fee-only website proffering her information); etc.

     Great care must be taken with studying any record. How close to the actual event was it created? The closer, the better. Is the record a copy and by whom was it copied. Did the compiler of a set of records understand what they were compiling (applies particularly to deed records)? I could go with much more, but I hope you are getting the idea that none of this research is easy.

     I believe I have occasionally referred to something as not meeting the Genealogical Standard of Proof (GSP). The five steps of the Genealogical Proof Standard are the essential parts of the process that we use to conduct genealogy. They 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 yourresearch.