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Basics of Research: Step 2 - Documentation Saves Pedigrees

Here's a test: A reminiscence says grandmother's death occurred in 1854, but a diary says it was April 1855. Which is more apt to be right?


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Here's a test: A reminiscence says grandmother's death occurred in 1854, but a diary says it was April 1855. Which is more apt to be right?

The birth date on a family group sheet comes from "family sources," nothing more. A different date on another sheet has as its source "birth certificate." Which is more apt to be correct?

Several generations of a pedigree are attributed to a website address only. Some of those same generations, with differences, on a second pedigree chart, came from the family Bible. Which are more believable?

What is family history truth? And how does a family historian recognize it? The second step in the Research Cycle attempts both to define and to ensure the finding and perpetuation of family truth through documentation.

To start with, family history discoveries entertain and delight • and occasionally embarrass - when researchers find new facts about their own families. But when the researchers veer from their own true pedigrees and onto someone else's, it is disaster.

For example, I have an ancestor named Absalom Pennington. Unusual name. Easy to recognize. I followed his travels from North Carolina, through Tennessee to his will in St Clair County, Illinois. Then I found an Absalom Pennington in St Helen's Parish, Louisiana. Did my ancestor take a detour into Louisiana? The Louisiana Absalom Pennington had parents and siblings. Mine didn't. Wouldn't it be great if I could add all this new information to my pedigree?

After much research, I discovered the Louisiana Absalom Pennington was between ten and fifteen years younger than mine. He had different children than mine. Had I not curbed the excited desire to add unproven names to my pedigree, I would now be researching somebody else's ancestors • not mine. That's no fun.

Please pay major attention to this caution: More information is available to more people now than has ever been true in the history of the world. And a higher percentage of it is wrong than can be imagined. Tons of information is made up! No documentation. No effort to be true, only to be convincing. Think of the movie Pocahontas. Her descendants, if any, have had their family history rewritten to support a filmmaker's agenda.

Recently, I was doing a website search on Perkins ancestors. There in pixels was a surname for Richard Perkins wife, Mary. It was Utie. It sort of made sense since a son was named Ute. But there were no sources. So I hauled myself off to a repository in Maryland and proved, fairly quickly, that Mary Utie was married to someone else entirely and having children at the same time Richard Perkins' wife was having his children. Only took a few minutes to prove Utie could not be her last name. Yet that website • even after I emailed the results of my research • still bears her name. Others will come along and accept Mary Utie as their ancestress. They'll be doing someone else's genealogy.

Documentation, the habit of writing down everything possible about each piece of information, is the only way to ensure anything close to accuracy. Write down the author, the title and publication information. Also write down enough information about where the document resides, so that someone else could come behind you and find it. For example, one biography of Absalom Pennington Free would be documented like this: Rose, Mae Biesinger. Absalom Pennington Free. (no additional information is found on the site, unfortunately)

The second step in documentation is to understand which sources are more apt to be correct, an easy course of study. Those sources recorded closest to the action by those most involved are more likely to be correct. The more distance in both time and space, the least likely to be correct. Ah, this formula makes the questions at the beginning easy to answer.

A reminiscence is written late in life, a diary is written daily. So the diary entry is more correct for grandmother's death. The notation "family sources" is as good as nothing, so anything else is more likely to be true. The nurse or doctor recorded a birth certificate while in attendance at the birth • a true witness, so birth certificates are apt to be correct. Web sites are notoriously wrong, so even with all the problems family Bibles have, if no sources are given on the web site, I'd chose the Bible every time.

Documentation keeps researchers working on their own pedigrees, instead of veering off to work on someone else's. Documentation leaves a trail others can follow to find the same sources.

Other Articles in the Series:

Step 1: Genealogy Can Be A Cheap Hobby
Step 3: Family Records Are the Best!
Step 4: Survey Sets Up Research
Step 5: How Many Marys Did David Merry Marry?
Step 6: Genealogy Detecting
Step 7: Publish Or All Your Research May Perish
Step 8: Evaluate and Decide

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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