Monday, July 15, 2013

Using Care When Shaking Your Leaves

I don't know about you, but I get just a bit peeved each time I see one of Ancestry.com's television commercials. This one from 2009 is not as simplistic as many of the current TV ads, but it is still misleading.


Believe me, it's not that simple! I have been using Ancestry.com since 2002, and while it has made my research so much easier than it was for my Grand Aunt Helen (Newton) Beers in the 1940s, one person's error can be replicated in a dozen other family trees as quickly as select, review, and save.

While it is possible occasionally to find a well-sourced tree with photos and stories, I have only had that happen perhaps twice for the hundreds of surnames I have researched.

Advertisements appealing to specific ethnicities
The  "Born A Slave...Died a Businessman" ad (2011) geared for the African American community spawned a host a negative reactions, from discussions on racism to extreme parodies. One man asked a great question...
"If your ancestor had died a slave would you have been any less proud?" 
Specializing in African-American ancestry poses some unique challenges in digging up ancestral roots. The parodies all tend to focus on the obviousness of African slavery...but how many would naturally look for their Black ancestors as land holding Free Persons of Color during the Colonial period? It appears that the bias slants toward the second wave of slave importation during the Antebellum period. But what about all those who came before?

Shaking leaves on your family tree
Without getting into a debate on African-American history, allow me to explain why genealogists--researching ancestors of any nationality and ethnicity--must use care when shaking the leaves of the family tree.

As do some genealogists, I have several places where I have family trees posted:
  1. Family Tree Heritage Deluxe (my first family tree software used to make a working model to test hypotheses),
  2. MyHeritage.com (used to make living descendant connections),
  3. Ancestry.com (used to make initial document connections to names in my tree and make living descendant connections), and
  4. Legacy 7.5 (the software I'm using to format a more professional tree).
You might start by roughing out your tree with just the names you find in a sourced pedigree, adding documents as you go. But if you continue long enough in this manner, you may eventually wind up with a lot of unproven relationships, and ultimately, some completely wrong family connections as did several researchers attempting to make a connection to my husband's African-American family tree.

Somewhere, something went terribly wrong! The hypothesized progenitors were white slave owners of the same surname...the main problem being that my husband's ancestors had Christian names before coming to America, and they were not named for their masters. To add insult to injury, these white forerunners weren't even from the same locality. The only thing connecting them was a surname, and a list of several similar given names of children.

Even if you don't hold fast to some fantastic connection that seems too good to be true, you may (as I have) come across a birth date (or other vital statistic) which is completely unsupported. Years later you may find it and ask yourself, Now how did I come up with that date? 

When I realized that I had placed it in my tree, unsourced, from a published genealogy, I immediately contacted the author of the tree and asked him,
"What was the general rule of thumb you used to determine approximate years of birth when no age was mentioned in the marriage bond, no will was left, and no age mentioned in the probate records?"
The response was,
"Absent any other information, I assumed a husband a wife, married at about 21, and then children spaced about 1 1/2 to 2 years apart."
Available on Amazon.com
The Genealogical Proof Standard
So, now I take up the task of re-evaluating the evidence to see if I might be able to make a more correct estimation based upon facts. The only way to ensure accuracy is to follow the five steps of the genealogical proof standard.

Family Search offers a free audio lesson, complete with course handout, on this subject by Presenter Christine Rose, author of The Genealogical Proof Standard: Building A Solid Case.
Below are the five guidelines she outlines in her book and in this audio lesson:
  1. Conduct a reasonably exhaustive search.
  2. Complete, accurate source citation.
  3. Analyze & correlate information to assess its quality as evidence.
  4. Resolve conflicts caused by contradictory pieces of evidence.
  5. Arrive at a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.
As Ms. Rose states, it is so easy to overlook this last part. We must keep a written research record of what hypotheses we make along the way where apparently conflicting evidence exists, and discuss what records we used to prove or disprove, and the results of the search. 

If I had done this in my working model when I first started, I wouldn't now be undertaking the monumental  task of re-evaluation!









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