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Good Researcher Gone Bad

It only takes one bit of erroneous or fraudulent information to taint an entire ancestry.


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Years ago, as a new bride, I learned a basic lesson—the hard way. When a recipe calls for 2 cups of milk and you use ¼ cup of recently soured milk and 1 ¾ cups of fresh milk—and all the other ingredients are 'fresh,' the end result is a dish fit for the trash! The same holds true for genealogy. It only takes one bit of erroneous or fraudulent information to taint the entire ancestry.

With the advent of the computer and the ever-increasing amount of information available on the internet, researchers have been able to access a vast assortment of genealogical records. But we cannot accept all the available data at face value. It is a very real fact that many hobby genealogists, in their enthusiasm to go on record have unintentionally submitted lineage records that are unproven. These submissions are then incorporated into other databases and so on and so on. Human error, lack of research skills, or even over-zealousness, is more easily understood, but no less serious, than a more ominous cause for these useless databases.

Many Internet databases contain fraudulent genealogies1 created by such master forgers as Gustave Anjou (1863-1942) who created hundreds of genealogies between 1890 and 1940 in exchange for huge fees. It is estimated that Anjou, who was not a genealogist, has tainted the lineages of over 2,000 common surnames. He was not the only forger active in creating questionable lineages for unwary clients. A search under "fraudulent lineages" will turn up dozens of websites dealing with this aspect of genealogy.

These fraudulent lineages contain an overwhelming number of citations to documents that actually exist, and some actually include the information cited. However, here and there, an invented document without citation will appear in support of the fraudulent data.

A similar problem is caused when hoax lines are created. These genealogies have been altered to prove a person's connection to a given individual. This is not always done with malice, but certainly does not involve a reasonable amount of research or documentation. Some so-called genealogists, however, will include proven information, interspersed with their information, to give the appearance that all of the data is documented. Some will even include a fictitious citation, using what appears to be a source to a valid location. They know most researchers do not check an item if it carries a source, so the lineage is recorded as it stands, without question. I recently worked with a client whose ancestral family appeared to be too complete. The names and spouses of the children were, according to the citation, documented in their father's will and military pension records. After some effort, copies of both documents were acquired. Several of the children and a few of the spouse's names were confirmed, but the remaining children included in the family unit were not included in either the will or the pension records. It is possible that their relationship was proven by other means, but because the citation referenced these two documents, their inclusion in them has been an accepted fact for over 40 years.

These problems are compounded by the fact that published lineages are often used as sources of the data. Many times, information in the publication has not been documented, as in the case above, or may have been derived from yet another published lineage. Numerous lineages that are published online list the source as a person or a website. True, these are sources of information, but they are not primary sources nor recognized documentation of the facts presented.

In proving the accuracy of your data, you must first use available primary sources. A primary source is one that was created at the time of the event, or by a person who was present and involved with the event. Births, deaths, marriages, wills, census records, court documents, and church registers are examples of a primary source. Obviously, it is not always possible to attain such records, so we turn to secondary sources. A secondary source is one that was created long after an event and generally by someone who had no first-hand knowledge. These would include family histories, biographies, family files, and some Bible records. Here you must be very selective and vigilant in checking the documentation. When you use a secondary source, it is not this source that stands as proof. It is the reference given within these works, when they prove a statement. In other words, if the family file lists names of the children and uses a census record as their source, it is the census record that proves this family unit, not the family file itself. It is possible to collect enough information from secondary sources to prove your line by a preponderance of the evidence. It is incumbent upon the genealogist to be vigilant in documenting the information and include notes outlining the steps taken that led to their conclusion.

When you find material that does not contain strong sourcing, or contains none at all, put the material where it belongs—in the waste basket. When you are compelled to use secondary sources, properly record your documentation as a secondary source. When you have information that you think might later connect but can not immediately be verified, add it to your notes—not to the body of your lineage. Review your material periodically. Typos, such as inverting numbers in a date or misspelling a name, are constant sources of confusion. Keep in mind that not all of the fraudulent lineages and invented documentation has been discovered and removed from published genealogies.

Train yourself to check all sources, and view as much documentation first-hand as is possible. Utilize internet message boards and mailing lists to request lookups by genealogists who live near repositories that you can not visit. If you choose to adopt information without checking the documentation, make a note that indicates you have not personally verified the citation. When another researcher offers a correction or addition to your lineage, ask for copies of the documentation. Likewise, when you share information or donate a family file, include the documentation. Last, but by no means least, include the date that you viewed the document, the repository in which it is housed, the book and page number, and any relevant information to assist others in verifying your data before they pass it along. Common sense rules apply in all areas of research. The first rule is obvious, but one we are often reluctant to apply. You will reach 'brick walls' if you research long enough. You must be willing to accept the obvious rather than force a connection to another proven lineage. Forcing a connection is like adding that soured milk. By doing so, you have created a pile of trash.

Additional Reading:

1"Beware of Fraudulent Genealogies," by Ron Wild; January/February 2001, Family Chronicle Magazine.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

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

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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