Monday, November 14, 2011

In genealogy, all roads are good.

I’ve been noodling around the internet, searching on blog postings that discuss professionalism and genealogy. I’ve found some interesting postings that are worth considering in our discussion of professionalism and genealogy. I hope you get a chance to read and consider them as we go forward in our discussion.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Whoever started the idea that a genealogist could be demanding?

Donald Lines Jacobus is widely recognized as the father of modern genealogy. As such, he was the first person inducted into the Genealogy Hall of Fame by the National Genealogical Society:

Donald Lines Jacobus, FASG (1887–1970), of New Haven, Connecticut, was the first person elected to the National Genealogy Hall of Fame. He was nominated for this honor by the American Society of Genealogists, the Genealogical Society of Utah, and the DuPage County (IL) Genealogical Society. During his lifetime, Jacobus was widely regarded as the dean of American genealogists, and he is recognized as the founder of the modern school of genealogy in the United States. He was the editor and publisher of The American Genealogist for forty-three years, and he may have been the most prolific genealogical writer of any generation. His writings include the classic, Genealogy as Pastime and Profession. On his death, he was described by his colleague Milton Rubincam, as "the man who more than any other single individual elevated genealogy to the high degree of scholarship it now occupies." [1]

The first eight issues of the journal Jacobus began were devoted to the genealogy of the earliest families in New Haven, Connecticut. As this topic ended, Jacobus renamed the journal The American Genealogist. The first paragraph of his “Preface” to that edition gave his goals:

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"Genealogies Aren't Found -- They're Made"

For centuries in the West the genetic/biological description of family has been highly correlated with Western religious and political views of family. Each person has one sperm-supplying parent, and one egg-supplying parent, i.e., two parents of opposite sexes: exactly the type of couple able to marry in mainstream Judeo-Christian churches; and exactly the type of couple defined legally at the U.S. federal level by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

But is this the only definition of “kinship”? A recent author notes:

Monday, October 17, 2011

Playing Dominos: the Illumination of the Non-Authoritative

Indexes, abstracts, and transcriptions have their places in research. I learned something new about that last week in Salt Lake City. There a respected New England researcher and writer helped me with my transcription of the will and inventory from the estate of Gov. Thomas Welles of Connecticut.

The governor wrote his own will. For many years he was also secretary of the General Court, that is, the colonial legislature of Connecticut. The colony’s Fundamental Orders are in his handwriting. It is consistent in its presentation. Each letter form is unique. This would be absolutely wonderful if not for the fact that the governor’s handwriting was old-fashioned for his time. I’ve found that headaches can ensue when I deal with the written hand of either Thomas Welles or Matthew Grant, great record-keepers but old-school in handwriting style.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Objects in the Mirror Are Not Authoritative: The "Indirect Citation"

Earlier I updated the Homer and Charry ahnentafel entries with citations to church and vital records indexes. Each of these citations noted what the index stated about where to find the original record. I write as I research. This indirect citation is thus an interim step. If an index provides a volume and page number, I put it in the working citation. If a book cites gravestones or vital records, I quote the book's information in the footnote. This is a useful habit for the "res-write" process,[1] that is, synchronized research and writing, because it stores that interim step. The next research step is to use that index information to find the original record.

Sadly enough, if I am working on my family, I sometimes go no farther than the indirect citation. Connecticut is my specialty area and my family's origins. It is in Connecticut that the massive Barbour index to vital records to 1850 tempts me every time. I can do four Barbour look-ups in the time it takes to mount a microfilm reel and view the record itself. If I viewed it, I could cite it. But I don't view it so that citation stays indirect and quotes the slip index citing the location.

The credibility of my work product would improve if I went to the vital records (or their microfilm copies) every time. As genealogical standards state, "The original is the most authoritative source."[2] Not much room for argument there.

[1] This is a term I coined for my speech "Research and Reporting the Right Way -- Together!"  It reminds me of Research-Write/Right, which I like.
[2] Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Washington, D.C.: Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2000), Standard 21, pp. 8-9.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Isn’t an Ahnentafel all about Who the Parents Are?

Producing a credible work product means employing the qualities of trustworthiness and expertise. How can we achieve a greater level of expertise? One way to show competence is to use better quality sources. With those, we show that we can weigh sources and that we have knowledge of where to find such sources. In a brief hour in Hartford weeks ago, I was able to gather index entries that will lead me to better sources.

Being an avid genealogist, I did enjoy digging around to find the sources for the events regarding Homer and Charry. It was satisfying to link the actual contents of the sources with the facts they supported. One overarching “fact” however is not stated explicitly in their entries or in most ahnentafels. That fact is the identity of each individual’s parents. As I continue to explore reliable sources for Homer and Charry, I will start noting which sources identify parents.

I posted the ahnentafel entries for Homer and Charity “Charry” (Everett) Curtiss earlier using the sources originally provided in the online family tree which originally misled Wikipedia. A quick search of slip indexes at the Connecticut State Library revealed  a few more details. Those are indexes and thus they point us to original records. I haven’t spent more time yet, beyond a brief attempt to read the Salisbury church records prior to 1797. Even so, I’m making an interim update to the Homer and Charry entries using what sources I’ve seen so far.

Friday, October 7, 2011

What Would Homer and Charry’s Ahnentafel Entry Look Like with Source Citations?

In an earlier posting, I looked at Homer and Charity “Charry” (Everett) Curtiss, who were ancestors 122 and 123 in an online ahnentafel.[1] That ahnentafel had some sources listed under Homer’s entry. There were several issues with how those sources were listed. My complaint was that they were not linked to the particular statements of fact that they supported.

Homer and Charry with Source Citations Linked to Facts

Here is what I think the ahnentafel entry on Homer and Charry would look like if its source citations were done in a standard format. I haven’t changed the presentation of facts in this entry nor have I changed which sources were used in any significant way. I’ve simply attached citations to statements of fact.

#122. Homer Curtiss, b. 30 May 1787 CT;[2] d. 30 Apr 1886 Waverly, Morgan Co., IL;[3] m. 25 Oct 1810[4]
#123. Charity Everett, b. 16 Oct 1789/90 CT;[5] d. 30 Dec 1876[6]

Have We Succeeded in Creating a Credible Work Product?

When I first ran those online citations down, astute blog readers noted that the quality of the sources used was not the best. Citations allow us to weigh the reliability of what we are reading. The three books in particular set off warning bells. The Weygant book fails to supply dates, locations, or even the name of Homer’s wife, although it does list several children. The Carter genealogy fails to marry Homer off at all. Only the Curtiss book provides full dates, locations and names. None of the books includes source citations.

The Find-a-Grave site provides a photograph of a shared gravestone. One reader pointed out that the stone’s design may be more recent than the 1886 death of Homer. This is a serious question. If the stone was more recent, then there is a possibility that it was installed far from the time in which the events happened. The stone only carries years of birth and death.

In seeking to find a credible way to present this genealogical information, we have come closer to showing the qualities of being well-intentioned and truthful as we have shown the limitations of what we know. We have also shown a small amount of expertise, as we have linked the statements of fact to individual source citations. Better sources are available. By using them, we could improve the credibility and reliability of the ahnentafel work product.

[1] Robert Battle, Michael Hurdle [contributor], “Ancestry of Sarah Palin,” updated 15 Sept. 2008, Rootsweb; : 6 Oct 2011.
[2] Howard Williston Carter, Carter: a Genealogy of the Descendants of Thomas Carter of Reading and Weston, Mass., and of Hebron and Warren, Ct., also Some Account of Some Descendants of his Brothers, Eleazer, Daniel, Ebenezer and Ezra, Sons of Thomas Carter and Grandsons of Rev. Thomas Carter, First Minister of Woburn, Massachusetts, 1642 (Norfolk, Connecticut: self-pub., 1909), 38. Laura Guthrie Curtis Preston, The Curtis Family: a Record of some of the Descendants of Deodatus Curtis of Braintree, Massachusetts (Marietta, Ohio: self-pub., 1945), 33.
[3] Preston, The Curtis Family, 33. Photograph of gravestone: Cheryl Behrend and Paula Berry Nelson, “Homer Curtiss,” Find-A-Grave, Memorial # 11767168; : 6 Oct 2011.
[4] Preston, The Curtis Family, 33. Note that the wife’s name is unidentified in Charles H. Weygant, The Sacketts of America: Their Ancestors and Descendants, 1630-1907 (Newburgh, New York: [journal print,] 1907), 254.
[5] Preston, The Curtis Family, 33.
[6] Edward Franklin Everett, Descendants of Richard Everett of Dedham, Mass. (Boston: privately printed, 1902), 76.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What Makes our Work Credible?

We all want to save our work for posterity, for our children and grandchildren. Many of us also want to make our research available to others to aid them in their work. Whatever our goals, without credibility, our work products will fall short of our intentions.

A decade ago, the issue of credibility was addressed for computer websites. A research team based at Stanford University put together a large-scale survey and analyzed the results. The report defined credibility in terms that make for a useful discussion. [Emphasis below was in the original.]

Friday, September 30, 2011

Why I Think that Conflicting Evidence Gives Us Great Opportunities

Opportunity? Some of the most interesting breakthroughs in genealogy begin with a researcher noticing conflict in evidence.

[Those allergic to travelogues may skip the next three paragraphs. I was complaining about this type of writing earlier this week. I guess I'll have to eat crow on this topic!]

When I was a newbie genealogist, I wanted straightforward facts. I wanted consistent dates and clear locations. I wanted direct evidence about family structure. Relentlessly I filled out my pedigree chart. My biggest concern was whether I named a location by its current name or by its colonial name (Milford, New Haven Colony; or Milford, New Haven Co., Connecticut?).

About eight years into my genealogy career, i.e., around 1992, I had my first chance to speak outside of local societies. I was asked to fill in for a speaker who would not make the joint Tarrytown, New York, event co-sponsored by NEHGS and NYG&B. I have no idea how my name came up on the list, but the topic at hand was the evaluation of evidence. The original presenter had been a lawyer. I knew I had not a chance in H-E-doubly-hockey sticks of truly filling his shoes.

I had to find a way to discuss evidence analysis without getting too sticky. I realized that I had a few documents in my own family files that were in conflict with other documents. I had the gall to title the 1992 speech, “Not Quite Right: Finding Errors in Sources.” I guess I knew it all back then.

[Those allergic to travelogues can resume reading here.]

In looking back, I have to admit that my approach to conflicting evidence has changed in the last two decades. I still think that a person can only be born or die once, that is, on one date in one location. A part of me continues to be determined to figure that out what is true. Over time, however, I’ve come to understand that I need to keep the complexity and ambiguity of the underlying source materials in my files, in my mind, and in my writing about them.

My chance to speak on Geneabloggers’ Radio on Friday night with Pat Richley-Erickson, Claire Brisson-Banks and Michael Hait about conflicting evidence has made me take a deeper look. Everywhere I look, I see that at its core conflicting evidence represents great research opportunity.

The link to BlogTalk Radio for Friday is Digging Deeper: Dealing with Conflicting Genealogy Evidence . The show begins at 10 pm Eastern time.

This week sees the introduction of a new book in France examining the causes of a fraud perpetrated by a woman named Misha Defonseca.[1] It may not be a coincidence that the publisher of this new book explaining (read: explaining away) Misha’s fraud is the same publisher who originally published the fraudulent story.[2] French law differs from American law. Misha’s quick admission of error and the publisher's psychological excuse for that error might possibly serve to limit legal liability in the long run. All that, though, is an issue for the courts.

The original fraud was uncovered a few years ago by Sharon Sergeant, a professional genealogist working in Massachusetts. Sharon noticed that Misha’s book about her life as a child during World War II had different versions in the U.S. and in France. What had been altered was the evidence about the family in which Misha had grown up. When the book was published in France, evidence about Misha’s origins in Belgium was removed. Sharon investigated this conflicting evidence and uncovered fraud. The presentation of the conflicting evidence caused the author to admit it was fabricated.[3]

Noticing a conflict in evidence provided Sharon with a toehold on a hidden situation. Where we encounter conflict in evidence, we might be encountering a good story, a journal article, or just simply an excellent genealogy adventure. Think positive about conflict!


[1] Lionel Duroy, Survivre avec les Loups: la Véritable Histoire de Misha Defonseca (France: XO Editions, 2011).

[2] Misha Defonseca, Vera Lee [co-writer], and Marie-Thérèse Cuny [trans./auteur], Survivre avec les Loups (France: XO Editions, 2005).

[2] Caleb Daniloff, “A Genealogist Reveals the Painful Truth about Three Holocaust Memoirs: They’re Fiction,” Bostonia, Summer 2009 issue; , viewed 29 September 2011. Scroll down to the section titled Red Flags and Zigzags to see what evidence was in conflict.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

How Do We Notice Conflicting Evidence?

It just so happens that an essay about a conflicting-evidence case is the sixth portfolio element in an application to become a Board-certified genealogist.[1] As a board member, I’ve spoken a handful of times about the certification process. Often audience members will ask if a particular case they have would qualify as a good portfolio element. I can’t answer that question; there is simply no way for me to know based on a two-sentence description when many documents and quite a bit of study would be needed to even know what the case is. However, in a broad way, I have a few guidelines.

I think that we sort through conflicting evidence very often in our research. The thing is, we sift it out fairly quickly. How many times have you used a city directory and found more than one person by a name? Quickly, we realize that we are tracking the William Snow who lives on Broad Street and not the one who lives on Main. Recently, I was following the Thomas H. Roberts who was a funeral director in Detroit and not the one who was a carpenter, although it did occur to me that carpenters could make coffins. One of my friends told me she was tracking a Patrick Murphy and the two men by that name both had wives named Mary. Fortunately, she knew which occupation each had.

Looking at these problems from outside our own mindsets, we could also say that we had conflicting information. We could say that Patrick Murphy lived at two addresses for a number of years. My friend ended up doing a conflicting evidence analysis on the two men so that she could sort out exactly which one’s death certificate her client actually needed — and how she’d recognize the right certificate when she found it.

In my work on the Welles family, I’ve frequently found situations in which two men with the same name live in the same town during the Revolution. It seems that within five generations there were enough cousins naming children after grandparents and uncles that confusion can reign. I found two instances of men named Josiah Welles marrying a woman named Anna Stillman. Only one was correct. There is an article there if I ever find the time to write it.

If we can grasp the conflict before we sift it out, we might be able to capture something important. So, the next time you find conflicting evidence, think, “There might be a journal article in here someplace.”


[1] Board for Certification of Genealogist, The BCG Application Guide (Washington, DC: Board for Certification of Genealogists, 2011), pp. 6-7, , viewed 29 September 2011.

Conflicting Evidence: What Is It?

What is “evidence”? What does it mean when it is “conflicting”? Succinctly put:

  • A document contains “evidence” only in terms of your research question. If your question is, “Was Charles the father of Barbara?” then Barbara’s birth certificate will contain direct evidence by naming her father. On the other hand, Barbara’s APG membership card will have little evidentiary value in answering that question.
  • Evidence is “direct” if it provides an answer to the research question. Everyone’s favorite example of this is a household group in the 1880 federal census in which relationship to the head of household is stated.
  • Evidence is “indirect” if it can be used to support an answer in a subtle way. Everyone’s favorite example of indirect evidence is a household group in the 1850 federal census. For example, if Barbara was a one-year-old youngster living in the household of Charles in 1850, we could conclude that the household structure does not preclude Barbara as a child of Charles. If they were related, this is just what we would expect to find. However, the census makes no direct statement about relationship and such a household structure could come about in other ways. We have to live with ambiguity in the 1850 census as it does not provide a direct "yes or no" answer to the research question.
  • Evidence is “conflicting” when two documents provide completely different answers to the research question.
I once had an audience member tell me that she had a situation in which the death date on the gravestone and the death date in the vital records were different. She asked me which one she should ignore. I wasn’t horrified by the question. In fact, it was familiar. In my early days as a genealogist, this was how I approached conflicting evidence. I wanted to know which date was right and which date was wrong.

After a few decades of experience, I now understand that it is a bad idea to bury conflicting evidence. If I write about an event as if that conflicting evidence doesn’t exist, then future researchers will be confused. They will find that evidence just as I did and they will doubt the depth of my research or the credibility of my conclusions as a result. Even worse, I might be wrong in my conclusion about which piece of evidence to keep. Therefore, we keep all the evidence we find. I like to make comments in footnotes about conflicting evidence and why I didn’t use it. That lets readers know my thought process and helps in the long run for all of us to come to reliable conclusions.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Revisiting the Genealogical Travelogue

Nearly a decade ago I wrote about the use of travelogue-style organization in genealogical writing.[1] My point-of-view was that genealogical writing should be document-centered. I wrote that a travelogue is only reasonable for a report about negative research findings and then only if it is structured around the types of documents which were sought.

Recently I had another opportunity to think on this topic. A quarterly journal from a state genealogy society included a travelogue article.[2] To be fair, it is a follow-up to a more conventional article in the previous issue which won the society’s 2012 “Tell Your Family History” prize.[3]

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Three Kinds of Research Plans We Use

Humbled by yesterday's hour researching Homer and Charry (Everett) Curtiss, I came to the conclusion that there are three kinds of research plans in this world.
  • The fill-in-the-blanks plan that is aimed at getting dates and places for the people listed on a pedigree chart.
  • The mindful plan, which first understands the historical and cultural structures around the people, then thoughtfully determines what is available and which likely sources might yield the most helpful information. 
  • The scorched-earth plan that is aimed at getting absolutely everything that could possibly exist for the people under study. 
My impulsive fill-in-the-blanks approach to supporting statements of fact on Homer and Charry did not yield fruit. Perhaps it's time for me to take a mindful approach.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Homer and Charry: Can We Do Better?

Today is a good day to continue our examination of online ahnentafels We looked at the cited references for Homer and Charry (Everett) Curtiss that we found online.[1]  I checked out what they supported as far as the statements of fact. We eventually found that the dates were supported except for the exact date of death for Charry. The details for these ancestors of Sarah Palin were: 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

It Isn't Personal: It's about the Work Product

This blog has as its focus how I assess the quality of the genealogical work that I see and use. By putting this focus on quality, I learn about what makes some work more reliable or credible that other work. This is not and will not become a discussion about any particular genealogist. Genealogists will appear in the blog only in the context of citations as authors, compilers, editors, and web-based site managers.

I was concerned that I as well as any people who commented on my posts would keep this in mind. For that reason, in setting up the blog, I required that commenters identify themselves. I also required that all comments be approved by me before posting. I did not, however, make my focus on work products completely clear at the outset.

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:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Wikipedia Misled by an Online Ahnentafel

About a year ago, I learned how to correct errors on Wikipedia. There is a protocol and etiquette so that a collaborative editing process goes smoothly. Fortunately, most of the other editors on that page were patient with my learning curve. Once I had been guided into the correct etiquette, the change was made peacefully.

Wikipedia also has policies or protocols about the sources of information for statements made in the articles. Those sources have to be published and available. The sources that led me to realize there was an error were not readily available. Some were on microfilm, some were in manuscripts, and the analysis was in my head. I had to search for a new way of explaining the error using online sources before I could get it corrected.