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Junk genealogy...and how to uproot it

The risk of using incorrect information is that it can keep you from finding the correct information.

By Janet Brigham Rands

Genealogy information has become available in incredible abundance with the growth of the Web. With this welcome growth has come some weeds...and left untended, those weeds can choke out good information. Here are some examples of junk genealogy.

Example: "If This is Ohio, This Must Be My Grandfather!"

Junk genealogy often stems from unfounded assumptions. It's true that sometimes a certain amount of guesswork is necessary, which is why databases such as PAF contain Notes fields for explaining limitations of source information.

But sometimes assumptions aren't warranted. For example, you may be looking for information about your great-great-grandfather, whose daughter (your great-grandmother) was born in Ohio. You know his name, so you look him up in a census index, and there he is!

You enter the information into your database and begin to look for his parents. You find his parents, and their parents, and so forth, and when the information finally runs out back in about 1650, you sit back quite happy about having found this whole line of ancestors.

The problem is, you found the wrong people. You don't know that yet, and perhaps you never will -- but the people you found aren't your ancestors at all. They just happened to have the same last name as your ancestor.

If you're lucky, you'll find this out. If you aren't, you will perpetuate incorrect information that may also throw off others' genealogy work and may keep you from ever finding the correct information.

How were you to know? Wasn't one solid piece of documented evidence enough? Unfortunately, it wasn't. You had to look for more clues, such as these: Where were his children married? Where did he die? If his children were married in Michigan, you might want to check out records in Michigan before you assume that the person with his name in Ohio was your great-great-grandfather.

Example: Ghost-Town Goof

We had been anxious to visit the little town in California where one of our ancestors was born. We found photos of the old town on a Website, along with an explanation of how the town's name had changed from the name listed in family records to the name it presently has.

When the family was together for a visit, we all drove several hours to find the present-day site of the little ghost-town mining camp where this ancestor was born in the 1800s. We walked around and spoke to a few of the people who live there now. We knew the town had changed names since its early days, but it puzzled us that none of the oldtimers we chatted with had ever heard of the town's earlier name.

A few days later, as we were looking through some old city directories in a public library an hour or two from our home, we learned that we'd visited the wrong ghost town! The town we visited never did have the name the Website said it had -- the small town where this ancestor was born was in another county entirely. A county history book published in the late 1800s explains how the town changed names.

We know now that we should've checked out the town names ourselves before we took our ancestral ghost-town visit.

Example: The Myth of the Diamond Miners

It had become common family lore that two ancestral brothers had left England to make their fortunes in the diamond mines of South Africa. But when we checked some carefully researched histories, we found that diamonds weren't being mined yet when the brothers left England.

So what were they doing in South Africa, if they weren't mining diamonds? Apparently they were farmers, "mining" the good earth for crops.

What harm did this misconstruance cause? Perhaps it didn't actually hurt anyone, but it certainly led the family off on the wrong track. It wasn't until a family member checked dates against the history of diamond mining in South Africa that he could dismantle the assumptions that kept this line of the family from being tracked correctly.

Example: The Fabricated Ancestors

Several decades ago, a couple paid a researcher to track down genealogy information about the couple's ancestors in Europe. The researcher came back with several generations of valid information -- and at least one generation that was completely fabricated.

This fraud happened several decades ago, but it is only recently that the family has been able to compare the lines leading to the faked information with documentation of the original sources. In the meantime, much effort could've been wasted by researchers pursuing nonexistent lines.

The fraudulent researcher probably never imagined that someday the information he was faking would be compared against microfilm and digital copies of actual records. Perhaps he also never imagined the many wasted hours that people would spend trying to find nonexistent people.

Doing It Right

You will do yourself, your family, and uncounted others a favor by carefully and thoughtfully documenting the sources of your family history information. Leave a documentation trail that is easy for others to follow.

Sometimes dates are our biggest friends in avoiding junk genealogy. Do the birth, marriage, and death dates make sense? Look at the information you are gathering and ask, Does this make sense?

We often like to check our pedigree information against information others have collected, since sometimes others' work gives us valuable clues. Sometimes, however, we find that whoever put a pedigree together must've been daydreaming, because we find some strange things --

  • Parents born only two years before their children were born;
  • Siblings' birthdates that are 70 years apart;
  • Siblings born on the same day but in different years, with the same given name;
  • Children born before their parents were born;
  • Ancestors supposedly born in places where only indigenous peoples lived at that time (e.g., Dutch ancestors supposedly born in a county in New York in the 1500s);
  • Generations skipped when a line contains people with the same name (e.g., Thomas, son of Thomas, also the son of a Thomas, the son of another Thomas, etc.) -- it's easy to miss one of those Thomases.

You get the point!

When we encounter a conflict or a nonsensical situation, we try to go back to the original sources. However, a great deal of genealogy on the Internet is sorely lacking in sources. We often find that the information is not documented with any sources, or is documented with such scant information that nothing can be verified.

It also is helpful to read about the history of the area where your family history events occurred. You may be surprised how genealogical clues will become more apparent to you as you learn about your ancestors through the history of their times.

(If you have been allergic to history since grammar school, get over it! You'll be amazed at how interesting history can be when you read it to understand the lives of your ancestors.)

Document, Document, Document

One way to avoid perpetrating junk genealogy is by documenting your sources carefully. The Silicon Valley PAF Users Group's book Family History Documentation Guidelines provides the best available help for you in doing this. Remember to follow these rules of good documentation:

Rules for Good Documentation
  1. Document as you go.
  2. Enter sources and notes in a consistent format.
  3. Enter a source description only once.
  4. Use confidential information with discretion and sensitivity.
  5. List all sources found for each event.
  6. Identify and document conflicting or missing information.
  7. Avoid using abbreviations.
  8. Specify additional research where needed.
  9. Strive to obtain primary sources for each event.
  10. Welcome input and constructive review of your documentation.
  11. Identify all researchers by name for all contributions, including your own. Use your own name, not I or me.
  12. Recognize that good documentation requires continuous refinement.