Sunday, July 15, 2012

STOP Creating Former Ancestors!

If there were a single portal through which every beginning genealogist had to pass, I would plaster Dick Eastman's recent post, "Barking Up the Wrong Tree," all over its walls in a jumbo-size font.

Eastman's story is good because it's so familiar. We've all done it, and more people are doing it every day (encouraged no doubt by's ignorant advertising): assume that if the name's the same, the person's the same -- and then when we later find the mistake, have to remove not only the wrong person but all the work we did on that wrong person! He asks readers, "Have you independently verified every 'fact' you have discovered? By 'independently,' I mean that you should always find a contemporary record that agrees with the first record you found."

I would add the suggestion that knowing and following the five-part Genealogical Proof Standard is a good way to avoid getting into this fix:

  • a reasonably exhaustive search;
  • complete and accurate source citations;
  • analysis and correlation of the collected information;
  • resolution of any conflicting evidence; and
  • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion. 
The last point is just as important as the others. The end point is not entering your ancestors in a database. Will you remember the process of evidence and reasoning that got them there? Tomorrow? In a year? In a decade? What about your great-grandchildren? Writing up the conclusion is important even if you plan never to publish. Sometimes doing so is enough to uncover contradictions and uncertainties and things we forgot to look for.

Dick Eastman, "Barking up the Wrong Tree,"Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter, 14 July 2012,

Harold Henderson, "STOP Creating Former Ancestors!," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 15 July 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Debbie Parker Wayne, Certified Genealogist(sm) said...

Great reminder to all genealogists, Harold. The more we can encourage everyone to use the GPS the better research we will find in our initial survey of published sources when we start a new project. No one will understand the importance of the last step listed in the GPS - a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion - until you have done it several times. Then you will see how this step contributes to the research process and makes you a better researcher.

Michael Koplow said...

Harold, I'm not a genealogist (although I do have ancestors--at least my parents thought so). I remember back when I was a kid, we kept getting mail telling us they found the Koplow family coat of arms, and if we sent buckage they'd send us an authentic copy of the centuries-old thing. Two probs. First, some time between 1946 and 1952, the fam changed its name from "Koplovitz" (I can date this because my sister was born with the long version and I was born with the short one). (Lianne, my beloved sib, I apologize if you're reading this. If I didn't get caught, I don't apologize.) Second, "Koplovitz" is a distinctively Jewish name ("Kopl" comes from a Yiddish diminutive for "Jacob.") We didn't have a coat of arms.

Anonymous said...

This is why I use as a repository of possibilities. It's a great place to 'hold' ideas until I have time to really research them. I keep it private, so that if anyone contacts me about 'information' on my tree I can tell them (if appropriate), look, this information has not been verified. In my 'role' as genealogy librarian at a public library, I try to teach people about the Genealogical Proof Standard. I've been pleased to discover that many people really do want to do it properly!