Monday, November 17, 2014

How I learned what to do with undocumented family trees

Back in the 20th century, my wife's father's mother's family spent a lot of time (and some money on a professional genealogist in North Carolina) trying to find the ancestors of her great-great grandmother Jennie (Cochran) Boren.

They got nowhere; my daughter and I got nowhere too -- until she came across a family tree on Rootsweb's WorldConnect pages, a more static predecessor of today's Ancestry trees. The tree contained names and dates -- no sources. But it approached Jennie from the "other side," that is, her birth family.

Did we sneer at this tree -- unsourced as it was, and connected to an address whose owner never responded to our inquiries? We did not.

But we didn't believe it and take its statements as gospel, either -- we had been around long enough not to do that either.

We did the same as reasonable people do with family stories they heard in person -- checked the claims out against the available records. Was Jennie found in census records with her claimed parents? Were they the ages claimed? What about the siblings and aunts and uncles? Could we find quality sources, information, and evidence that confirmed or denied the claims in the tree?

We did. There's more work to be done on this line but without this rather disreputable-seeming lead, we might still be looking for Jennie (AKA Jane E.).

Wise genealogists use all available clues. Dogmatic rejection of apparently low-quality sources is no more sensible than dogmatic acceptance of them. Don't be a source snob.

Harold Henderson, "How I learned what to do with undocumented family trees," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 17 November 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Anderson DNA Project said...

Harold, love this article! I use clues wherever they are found to locate documentation to prove a point.

RVcook said...

Excellent! The term "clue" is exactly how I describe this situation when I am stumped. Great post!

Linda Schreiber said...

Amen, Harold. Yes, clues. And possibly even distant cousin contacts.
'Undocumented' doesn't always mean sloppy or error-filled.
If I hadn't followed some of these, I would have missed being sent proofs, photos, a family bible transcription, and family stories from the contacts.
And would have still been fighting brick walls concerning first vs middle name problems, missing maiden names, etc.
Just as "not everything is on the net", not everything is findable in legal documents and formal sources, either.
And not every undocumented tree is fatally flawed. In fact, many people leave the online tree unsourced so they will be contacted insstead of copied, especially in the 'olden days' of, say, the 2000s.

looloolooweez said...

Yes, yes to all of this! I like to think of unsourced trees as something akin to Wikipedia -- a good place to start when you don't have a clue, but not gospel truth and not cite-able in and of themselves.

And there are all kinds of reasons why an accurate tree might remain unsourced. For example, my great aunt put together a lovely tree (and as it turns out, accurate) tree that goes back to the 16th century, but she didn't think her research was "important" enough to include.