I’ve been at this family history business long enough, six years (the equivalent of 56 years in Internet terms), to be considered something of an expert. So I thought I’d jot down some of the worst advice I received during my quest, for the benefit of neophytes who want to embark on a family history project in 2015.
1. Believe Everything You Read
That’s the temptation, isn’t it? If someone committed a story to paper or birth dates to a family bible, then they must be right. Wrong. “Facts” on paper are only as good as the memory or sources of the person who wrote them. Memories, I’ve found, can be highly selective.
Consider the case of my third great grandfather, J.R. Boyce, who left behind a letter that was supposed to serve as an official record of his family’s history. While it has served as important map for my journey, it also contained several inaccuracies and omissions. Most of them, I have to admit, are forgivable. After all, how is an old man supposed to remember everyone’s birthday? Boyce didn’t have access to the plethora of government documents available online today.
But he should have remembered, and written down, that he was married a second time, to a Philadelphia socialite who left him in Omaha in the early 1880s. I found that out one day when I was scanning Montana newspapers from the 1890s at an historical library. Boyce asked for his divorce, on basis of abandonment, through the newspaper. Scandalous. Absolutely scandalous.
2. Your Mother Had it Right
Presumably, your mother, or your father, told you a lot about your family’s history. I’ve found that so-called oral history needs to be taken with a grain, sometimes a shaker, of salt. It should come as no surprise that relatives tend to exaggerate about the exploits of their ancestors — enlisting in the military at some point turns into being a captain in the British military.
Never mind that this same relative was thrown out of the military for stealing petty cash, as was apparently the case with my earliest North American paternal ancestor.
As a child, the family used to cross various bridges linking New York City to surrounding regions, and I’d be told that my grandfather had built the bridge. Turns out he worked for a company that built several of the bridge, and in most cases the work was done before he started working there.
Despite reliability issues, it pays to accumulate as much oral evidence as possible from your oldest relatives. I never would have learned, for instance, that my great grandfather J.E. Thompson killed a man, which I subsequently confirmed with some obscure newspaper articles. I guess I finally need to write that story, so that I can put a link in this text.
3. Other People Know As Much or More than You Do
One of the biggest mistakes you can make — especially when it comes using online services — is believing that other people know as much or more as you do. There are a ton of idiots on Ancestry.com who will believe anything that anyone else supposedly found. They all want to believe that they were related to British royalty, and they won’t let any facts stand in their way.
After a couple years of building my family tree, I won’t add any information unless there’s a record to substantiate it, or the source is impeccable. It’s just too easy to make a bad inference. Too many people have similar names and were born or married in the same places. Published historians, I’ve found, sometimes make mistakes in their desire to make a point.
You have to go inch by inch, record by record. Even work for hire done by professional genealogists is suspect. I’ve found countless minor errors in official records passed down by relatives, though I’m nitpicking here. The vast majority of material in these records is accurate and intriguing and has provided countless leads.
4. Newspapers Are Always Accurate
Oh, boy. Don’t know where to start with this one. It’s hard to believe how often newspapers are duped, or report things a certain way because a relative was a prominent advertiser. Looks like my great grandfather must have had an ownership stake the Bisbee Arizona newspaper that covered his exploits. They were always covered in an advantageous light. In fact, the stories read like promotions.
My infamous fourth great grandfather, Bernard Kock, who took 400-odd freed slaves to an island off the coast of Haiti during the Civil War in a deal condoned by President Lincoln. The colonists suffered a difficult fate. But that didn’t stop the U.S. Consul in Haiti from writing a dispatch picked up in papers throughout the country attesting to the success of the venture.
Society pages from the turn of the century have been a major source of information in my quest. One series of articles in the San Francisco Bee alleged that my grandmother may have been conceived out of wedlock. The newspapers extensively covered the early marriage of her parents without giving a cause. Then they never followed up! Imagine that. Turns out my grandmother was born more than a year after her parents married.
5. Focus Exclusively on Your Paternal Line
What fun is that? The pattern of focusing on your male line stems from many suspect traditions. Until the late 1800s, most people interested in family history typically had something to prove, namely their wealth, social status, or inheritance, which was passed down by males. The prejudice has lingered.
I’ve tried to be as gender neutral as possible in my work, though I’m still fascinated by the hopeless crusade of trying to determine where in Europe my oldest North American relative came from. Never mind that he was thrown in jail for assaulting a tailor.
Genealogists who focus primarily on males miss out on so much! A gender-neutral focus results in an exponential increase in the number of interesting people that you run into during your family history travels, and the stories that you can tell at family gatherings, like the lost architectural work of my uncle Joseph Ough. Life would be so boring.