Friday, September 9, 2011

Why We Should Demand Better Source Citations

The ahnentafel of Sarah Palin's paternal ancestry includes some source citations. For this reason, it initially achieved credibility among the Wikipedia editors. To my mind, though, the citations in the online ahnentafel present two issues, both of which make it lose credibility with this Demanding Genealogist.

For one thing, I want every (and I do mean every) statement of fact to have a source citation. In the case of an ahnentafel, each date, each location, and each relationship to parents is a statement of fact. I do expect that a single source might give more than one of these facts. Birth records, for example, often include the child's full name, the parents' full names, and the date and location of birth.

Looking at the ahnentafel at , however, shows that the source citations are in many places either distant from the facts or missing completely. Take a look at generation 1. Mr. Battle states:

1. Sarah Louise (Heath) Palin: b. 11 Feb 1964 Sandpoint, Bonner Co., ID; m. Todd Mitchell Palin (b. Dillingham, AK, son of Jim Palin and Blanche Kallstrom) 29 Aug 1988 Palmer, Matanuska Susitna Co., AK []; governor of Alaska 2006-, 2008 Republican V.P. candidate

The statements of fact here include:
  • Name (and parents who are numbers 2 and 3)
  • Date and location of birth
  • Full name of spouse and names of his parents
  • Date and location of marriage
  • Past job and 2008 political role 
We have one source citation. That citation is only a link to a web site. If we were to stay with the online ahnentafel, we would have no idea what information was at this site. A full citation for the site might be something like this (feedback on my citation happily accepted from all):

Andrew Wellner, "Professional marrier has seen all kinds of love: Commissioner: Her calling began in 1988, and two of her first customers were the Palins," Anchorage [Alaska] Daily News, issue of 2 February 2007;, accessed 9 September 2011.

This charming article tells us that Marriage Commissioner Kay Fyfe performed the marriage ceremony in the Palmer courthouse. It quotes the brief newspaper announcement but doesn't state in which newspaper it appeared; it does not quote the marriage license or marriage certificate at all. The article does state that one of the parties was then governor of Alaska, but it doesn't explicitly state whether the governor was Sarah or Todd. As for the date of the marriage, the article says that the newspaper clipping is "circa 1988" and then gives the date as August 29th without specifying the exact year.

It is likely that all of the statements of fact for person number 1 would be found on most modern marriage licenses. Depending on the state in the U.S., this information may or may not be open to researchers.

Sarah Palin is a public figure. There must be a myriad of sources that provide dates, full names, and family background. Wikipedia is one such resource and it happens to contain all of the statements of fact in the ahnentafel. Hmmm.

It might not be fair to start with such a public figure. With media coverage the way it is today, it is possible that most Americans feel that we know Sarah Palin personally. Let's look at ahnentafel person #123, Charity Everett, the wife of Homer Curtiss, who appears as:

123. Charity Everett: b. 16 Oct 1789/90 CT; d. 30 Dec 1876

No source citations at all! Maybe we are supposed to infer that the citations to her spouse cover her. Right above her, her spouse appears as:

122. Homer Curtiss: b. 30 May 1787 CT; d. 30 Apr 1886 Waverly, Morgan Co., IL; m. 25 Oct 1810
[Curtis 36; Carter 38; Sackett 254]
[ account, pictures, links to more data]

Mr. Battle is giving us four citations, one of which has much to offer. The Find-a-Grave site does provide quite a bit of material. It does not all come from the gravestone which provides their names (including Charity's maiden name) and the years of birth and death. You might enjoy clicking through on that link as Cheryl Behrend and Paula Berry Nelson have done a great job with text, photos, and citations. A few family letters are transcribed and a family photo is included.

The other three citations are in M.L.A. style. The bibliography identifies these three books as:

Carter: Howard Williston Carter, Carter: a genealogy of the descendants of Thomas Carter…
(Norfolk, CT, 1909).
Curtis: Laura Guthrie Curtis Preston, The Curtis Family: a record of some of the descendants of
Deodatus Curtis of Braintree, Massachusetts (Marietta, OH, 1945).
Sackett: Charles H. Weygant, The Sacketts of America… (Newburgh, NY, 1907).

The 1909 Carter book is available on On page 38, Homer appears as a grandchild. Only his birth date is provided. Those who have Ancestry subscriptions can see this page at:

For true amusement, though, what you need to see is Sackett, p. 254. Again, you will need an Ancestry subscription. The page is at That page states that Homer Curtiss married "____ ____?" so I don't think we will get much help there on Charity Everett if she was indeed his wife.

The Curtiss book is newer and under copyright. My online searching revealed that a snippet view was available on Google Books at . A set of queries gave me the following two snippets for page 36:

By the way, Charity (Everett) Curtiss has her own Find-a-Grave site at: . Remember that I noted that the gravestone photo only had the years of birth and death? Paula Berry Nelson and Cheryl Behrend also contributed to this site; they carefully give only the year of Charity's death. None of the cited material states that she died on December 30th. Come to think of it, both the Find-a-Grave site and the Curtiss genealogy show her name as Charry rather than Charity. That should be noted.

What is the take-away from this? This ahnentafel doesn't meet my demanding standards as far as source citation goes. It does not provide a source for every statement of fact. We should demand better source citations. The ones we have here mislead us into thinking that every statement of fact has a basis. What we have learned by looking into the sources is that this simply is not true. We do not have any source at all for the exact date of Charry's death, for example. Nor do we have the best possible types of sources, that is, the most reliable types of sources. Nearly all of the information used for Homer and Charry (Everett) Curtiss is from the Curtiss genealogy, a secondary information in a derivative document. [An historian would identify this as a secondary source.]

There is more to learn from this ahnentafel. In my next posting, I might reverse-engineer one of the citations, to see just how much it states and how much it doesn't state. Or I might look at whether the search through records has been extensive enough. Or I could ask how credible it is that Charity's parents both have masculine names. Hmmm, so many apples to pick from the tree.


  1. The plot thickens, as it usually does when you probe what passes for "sources" these days. Consider Findagrave - The Homer and Charry Curtiss gravestone obelisk looks to be much later (i.e., not "event-contemporary") than their 1876 or 1886 deaths. The family letter extracts lack info as to their location. Actual letters or quotes from a publication? We don't know. So, now the question: how many degrees removed from the vital event in question can info be and still be called a "source"?

    Keep up the good work! I'm enjoying it!

  2. Read the first line of this web site: "neither exhaustive nor authoritative."

    Bill's work was great. I know Mr. Battle not at all, but it seems you are being unfair to them. I also think that Wikipedia is better than it is.