By: George G. Morgan, author of The Genealogy Forum on America Online
This page added 08-01-01
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I had a discussion last week with a gentleman who advised me that his sister had obtained the family genealogy from another researcher and that, "Itís already done for us!" I cringed at the thought because there may be erroneous information in that genealogy, and the sister really needs to verify the evidence the other researcher documented. If not, she risks accepting as fact information that may have many holes in it.
There has been some discussion recently on a genealogy librariansí mailing list concerning inaccurate or bogus genealogies. These are materials that, as researchers, are difficult to understand, but about which we must be wary.
Letís explore some of the reasons why bogus genealogical information seems to be so widespread and how we can protect ourselves from this problem.
In previous centuries, it was not unusual for wealthy people to hire someone to research their ancestral lines and produce a genealogical report. There were certainly cases where the wealthy patron requested a connection to kings, queens, heads of state, and other famous personages. Researchers may have also fabricated such links in anticipation of more favorable payment. (This is one of the reasons why, as genealogists, we start our research with ourselves and work backward, rather than starting with Charlemagne and "forcing" a connection to our line of descent.)
These days, most professional genealogical researchers adhere to more stringent codes of conduct and ethics. These are set forth by such excellent professional standards organizations as the Board for Certification of Genealogists. [This is not to say there are no unscrupulous or sloppy professional researchers. It is always important to check the credentials and references of any professional researcher you might consider hiring.]
However, despite these standards, fabrication has continued in recent times. For instance, some people have been eager to connect themselves to famous personages or families in order to join a hereditary society. As a result, some of them may have "fudged" the facts, the dates, and/or the connections in order to make the cut. The societies themselves have had to institute rigorous standards of proof and meticulously check the documentation submitted with membership applications. In some societies, it has been necessary to conduct a retroactive evaluation of all documentation to re-prove valid connections. I have personally seen information in societiesí records that I can prove is incorrect through my own careful research, and I have seen these same documents used in othersí published research.
Why would someone write a bogus genealogy? As I mentioned earlier, there may have been financial incentives for creating such a family connection. Being a descendant of a famous or wealthy ancestor does have some benefits: fame, fortune (perhaps in the form of an inheritance), position in society, and membership in certain organizations, to mention a few. As a result, a published or privately printed genealogy may well contain a little or a lot of fabricated data.
In other instances, inaccurate genealogies may simply be the result of inattentive or sloppy work. A genealogist may have obtained the information from another person or from a printed genealogy; he or she may have assumed the data was correct without conducting personal research to verify the evidence. The problem is that, once published, a substantial number of other researchers accept the information as fact. Some just donít know any better, while others are just plain lazy. These people may then perpetuate the errors or inaccuracies in their own charts or, worse yet, in another published genealogy. Let me give you an example.
John Bennett Boddie, on page 387 of his book Seventeenth Century Isle of Wight Virginia, Vol. I, lists the names of 13 children of Nathan Bodie and Mary Edna Eidson. The names are supposedly presented in birth sequence and with names of spouses, beginning with James Russell, Jesse, Mary, Ann, Manda, Elizabeth, Amorilla, Susan, Jane, Virginia, Daniel, Jennie, and Andrew (all with surname Bodie).
Two childrenís names listed there are of particular interest. Manda is listed as the fifth child, with no birth year, and her spouse is shown as Willis Holmes. Another daughter, Amorilla, is listed as the seventh child, born in 1839, but with no spouseís name shown. An examination of the 1850 census shows the name "Amanda" written in such a way (with curlicues and flourishes) that it could easily be interpreted as "Amorilla." There is no Manda listed. The conclusion, then, is that the author misinterpreted the handwriting in the 1850 census. However, a later marriage record indicates that Willis Holmes was, in fact, the spouse of Amanda Bodieónot of Manda or Amorilla.
In a subsequent book, A Documented History of the Long Family, on page 237, Eytive Long Evans includes the names of Nathan Bodie and Mary Edna Eidsenís children as "James Russell, Jesse, Mary, Ann, Susan, Jane, and others." While the author does not cite the aforementioned book (or anything else) as her source, one might conjecture that she recognized potential problems with the Manda and Amorilla entries and therefore omitted them, especially since she listed some earlier-born and later-born children.
But what is also of significant interest is both booksí treatment of the childrenís birth sequence. In the first book, Jesse Bodieís birth date is given as 1830 and he is listed second. Jesseís birth date was actually in 1826, and he preceded his brother, James Russell Bodie. But the incorrect sequence is also listed in Evansí book.
Inasmuch as Boddieís book was the only printed genealogy concerning this branch of the Bodie family in existence when Evansí book was written, and since the two lists of children are in the same sequence (although the children are listed differently in the 1850 census), it is probable that Evans used and accepted Boddieís work and perpetuated his conclusions, albeit with some errors.
Thus, this is an example of a case where there are two printed sources with similar information, and one probably derived from the other. Because Evansí did not document her source for the Bodie family data (contrary to the title of her book, I might add), it is impossible to be certain that Boddieís data was her source. However, had she examined the 1850 census page herself and subsequently pursued the census records for all of the Bodie children, she would not have perpetuated the chronological sequence error of John Russell Bodie being born before Jesse Bodie.
So this is also an excellent example of why you should verify source evidence for yourself. In this case, finding the truth required a personal examination of both printed sources, the 1850 census, and at least one marriage record.
Most of us still conduct a significant amount of research in person at libraries, archives, courthouses, and other venues, or we are corresponding to obtain copies of records. As you work with printed materials, what do you do when you find two or more printed resources with conflicting information? You should (and must) start looking for additional resources, preferably in the form of the actual records from which the data was derived. Examine them for yourself, and make your own interpretation. Remember also that yet a third printed genealogy could exist, perpetuating errors or inaccuracies from one or both of the others.
Certainly, the Internet has expanded our horizons and our research range. Databases filled with other peopleís genealogical research are found in many places, and you must assume from the outset that what you will find is, at best, a tertiary sourceóa source derived from a primary or secondary source, transcribed from other sources, or maybe even taken from fourth- or fifth-hand data. The same holds true for information received from another researcher.
All of this illustrates the fact that you must be meticulous in verifying information you receive from sources other than original documents. While I am not saying that there are people who consciously perpetrate genealogical fraud or purposely falsify records, I am suggesting that we all maintain a healthy skepticism and look beyond making assumptions regarding the accuracy of the things we see in print. Regardless of the source - printed genealogy, database of any kind, GEDCOM file, e-mail message, message board posting, or whatever - protect your research by obtaining source citations, and follow through to review them for yourself.
Evans, Eytive Long. A Documented History of the Long Family. Decatur, GA: Bowen Press. 1956.
Boddie, John Bennett. Seventeenth Century Isle of Wight Virginia. Vol. I. Chicago: Chicago Law Printing. 1938.
George G. Morgan is a proud member of the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors, Inc.
False Markers in Genealogical Data
There are two primary reasons why bogus genealogies exist:
(1) there are financial incentives for manufacturing a family connection to a famous, wealthy, or otherwise notable personage, and/or
(2) some researchers are inattentive or produce sloppy work. Not only is incorrect information published, but other researchers may also accept it as fact, publish it as part of their own data without having verified the facts themselves, and therefore proliferate the problem.
However there is another type of problem that produces bogus information: the researcher who intentionally inserts incorrect data into his or her research.
Why Would Someone Falsify Data?
It is bad enough that poor-quality genealogies are published. It is worse when these errors are perpetuated in othersí research. However, to most of us, it would seem inconceivable that any "reputable" genealogist would intentionally include false data in his or her research. Unfortunately, though, it is true. Why?
The reason for inserting incorrect data is to identify when someone else is using your material. One way of doing this is with children who died in infancy. In effect, add or changing middle initials for these children because it supposedly doesnít make any difference; since they didnít marry or produce any offspring, no one will research a direct line.
Another way, is making changes to "the date of death by one day, because nobody cares." This is often done to protect the copyright on research data.
Consequences for Other Researchers
Pretend for a few minutes that you are a researcher who is seeking evidence of a family line for which you have little information. Letís use a fictional example. Perhaps it is that of your great- grandfather, John Jonesóa somewhat common nameóborn in 1849. You know his fatherís name was James Thomas Jones, but you do not know his motherís name. You have been told that your great-grandfather had an older brother who died quite young and who was named after his father. You think they lived in Fairfax County, Virginia. These are all the facts you know.
Your next research step is to examine the 1850 federal census for Fairfax County. Letís assume the index to that census shows seven heads of households named James Jones, none of which show any middle initial. Which family is that of YOUR ancestor?
If you have been told that your great-grandfatherís older brother was named for his father, you would probably search each household for a young male child, born before 1849, whose name was listed as "James Jones," "James Thomas Jones," "James T. Jones," "Jim Jones," "Jimmy Jones," "J. T. Jones," or whatever. You would look for all variations, with an emphasis on a child named after his father. You find there are three households with children named James Jones and John Jones. You still donít know which is your set of ancestors.
You subsequently find a GEDCOM file at a Web Site that shows a Jones family in Fairfax County, Virginia, with a father named James T. Jones, a mother named Mary Wilson, two sons, James W. Jones and John Jones, and a daughter, Mary Jones. The dates look about right, and the son, James W. Jones, died in 1852. However, the middle initial for James is wrong, and you know nothing about a daughter. Could this be the right family? What do you do?
Unfortunately, the researcher who encounters this information may take one of at least three paths:
1) He/she may search further for additional evidence to corroborate or refute the hypothesis that this is the correct family line.
2) He/she may abandon this family group, deciding that young Jamesí middle initial and the presence of a heretofore-unknown female child rules out this household.
3) He/she may return to the 1850 census and come to the conclusion that another household is a more appropriate avenue of inquiry.
In all three cases, the researcher is confounded, confused, and sidetracked in the research. In a worst-case scenario, a less tenacious researcher may decide this is a dead-end line and stop researching.
Now, what if all this confusion and extra work was caused by someone who, in the interest of supposedly "protecting" his or her work, inserted or altered data?
The Copyright Issue
Some genealogists make the incorrect assertion that their work is their own and that the data they compile and place in their GEDCOM files is protected by copyright. But there are two crucial points here.
First, information gleaned from public records of any sort is not protected under copyright law when someone copies it down onto a standard genealogy chart or enters it into a database. Vital records are public records. Court records are public records. Facts gleaned from tombstone inscriptions are public records. A wealth of other sources can provide the researcher with facts that also are public records. Even your own birth date is a matter of public record and cannot be called "private"; it certainly cannot be copyrighted.
Second, copyright law does not protect the data content of anything published. Data can be acquired, compiled, justified, and cited. Copyright law protects the presentation of the material. Therefore, data presented in a standardized, common format that is generally accepted by the community is not copyrightable. This means that the GEDCOM file you extract from your database program, the pedigree chart you complete, and the family group sheets you fill in cannot be copyrighted.
If, on the other hand, you compile information about your family and decide to write and publish a book about them, your presentation of the material in a unique format could be copyrighted; the factual data about their dates of birth, marriage, death, and so on could not be copyrighted.
In addition, U.S. copyright law allows you (and others) to quote small portions of text from othersí copyrighted publications, so long as it meets the "fair use" standard, as defined at the Library of Congressí United States Copyright Office Web site.
By altering the data of supposedly unimportant individuals, the people who think they are "protecting" their research from othersí unauthorized use are actually doing no such thing. If they make their information public in any form, they are inviting other genealogists to review and use their data for research purposes. If they want to "protect" it, why do they bother to make it public in the first place? They are, in reality, compromising their own data, damaging their own credibility (if and when the truth comes out), and hurting other genealogical researchers. If their point is to claim credit as the first person to "prove" a relationship or line of descent, there are other ways to do so, including maintaining a detailed research log and an organized, annotated collection of evidentiary documentation.
Copyright laws do, indeed, protect peopleís unique intellectual property and unique methods of presentation of otherwise commonly available materials. People concerned about protecting what they believe is their own work should not alter data and therefore subvert othersí research; they should invest in a consultation with a qualified legal professional or contact the United States Copyright Office.
As a good genealogical researcher, it is always important to maintain a healthy skepticism of all material one encounters. When you find contradictory information, always look for other sources, especially ones that are separate and independent from the material in question. Donít automatically discard contradictory information. Retain it in a "might be related" file for future reference when you find other sources. And if you find those wrong initials and date discrepancies, remember that someone may have purposely altered the data for his or her own purposes. Itís up to you to find the truth.
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