Monday, February 25, 2013

Lost & Found

Over the years of working on my genealogy I have lost and found more ancestors than I can count. Think of your clothes over the past decade. You find something that you think is amazing and awesome only to discover later that it doesn't really fit or isn't quite right and you discard it. Watching an ad for makes doing genealogical research seem so easy; just type in a few details and up pops a leaf that leads to fascinating facts about your ancestors. Unfortunately, real research is not that easy. Oh, you can just click on those leaves and add all sorts of things to your family tree but do so at your own peril - it's a bit like buying clothes on impulse. There is a lot of sloppy research and erroneous information out there. I am finding an increasing number of hints where the record does not even have the same name as the person for whom it is being suggested. The family trees that others have done are often equally misleading and not all sources/records are created equal. 

This is not, however, a rant about the horror of amateur family historians or an attempt to discourage you from starting your family tree. Quite the opposite. I remember the thrill of clicking and adding relatives when I first started. There were no shaking leaves then but still plenty of information that was easy to find. If it had been more difficult, I might have gotten frustrated and given up. I have seen my students experience that same thrill. I admit that I am not a purist. I jump around from branch to branch and work on whatever part of my tree captures my attention in that moment. I do not work methodically on a single line until it is done. 

However, I have learned to temper my enthusiasm with a healthy dose of skepticism about what I find online. I use trees of other members as starting points for research and look for records to back up what is recorded. I have made my trees private after being ripped into several times by those who believe no information should be recorded until it is completely verified. 

Finding ancestors is like being a private detective. You have to follow the clues and collect enough evidence to make your case solid. You will receive lots of tips and most of them turn out to be irrelevant and misleading but with persistance, you can find reliable information and solve the mystery. Sometimes it's a preponderance of circumstantial evidence and that's the best you can do.

Assembling ancestors into a family tree is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes a piece seems to fit but later you notice the subtle clues that show it isn't quite right and you begin again to find the piece that goes in that spot. Each piece you correctly identify and fit into place goes into making the larger family picture come to life. 

I do make errors but even when I have to lop off a branch from the tree because I've made a mistake, I always learn something and often find interesting stories of people and history. So get in there and start looking. Use the easy hints to get some traction but go back and evaluate with more care. I suggest using two trees - one for leads and possibilities and one that is as carefully documented as you can make it. 

1 comment:

  1. Great post! It is really a continuum, between not sharing a tree until it's supposedly perfect (or ripping into those who dare to share a work in progress), and the really sloppy messes some people call a family tree! Good luck to us both as we try to stay away from either extreme!