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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

How to Critically Read a Published Family History

Learn how to critically read a published genealogy

Congratulations! You have found a published genealogy featuring your ancestor. However, before you accept everything within the book, learn how to read the information critically. By so doing, you will improve your genealogy research and write engaging family histories.

My Experience With Published Family Histories

My grandmother is an adopted daughter of parents whose ancestral line extends back to Colonial America. This research and could connect me with cousins who were Colonial Dames.

Except for that whole adoption thing, I could be a member of DAR. Yet, that doesn’t really matter. 😥

Regardless, my grannie loved her Marvin family line. Anyone with ties to Hartford, Connecticut in the 1630s, just might be related to her multiple-great grandparents and uncle, Reinhold and Matthew Marvin. They were two brothers originally from Great Bentley, Essex County, England.

As such, Marvin descendants believe that reliable research is available into the 1600s. So, all the genealogy research is complete. Right?

There is a book available on FamilySearch detailing the early descendants of the brothers.

But, have you read the book?

Um. It’s about as enjoyable to read as a fact-filled textbook. Sure the facts are excellent, but reading a textbook is not something you curl up with for storytime.

Incidentally, I often read these old family histories and have so many questions.

Questions to Ask as You Critically Read a Published Family History

Critically read a family history for anything that does not make sense. Some accounts have details that need further explanation, such as the following:

  1. Where was the roller rink where you met my father?

  2. What was a bobsled in Ontario, Canada?

  3. How do you pronounce that name?

  4. Why is he on a track team in Texas when all other events of his life were from New Mexico?

  5. Who is De Veres?

  6. What is a ‘snuff box,’ and why was it named in a will?

Often locations, people, and objects are mentioned in family histories without further explanations. The reader is left wondering, “huh?”

That’s where you come in.

Critically re-read those old family histories and make notes (or mark up copies) when you encounter such situations.

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Example of Critically Reading a Published Family History

Let me show you what I mean with two pages from the Matthew and Reinhold Marvin book. (Descendants of Reinold and Matthew Marvin of Hartford, Ct., 1638 and 1635: Sons of Edward Marvin, of Great Bentley, England, by George Franklin Marvin William Theophilus Rogers Marvin, 1901.)

Descendants of Reinold and Matthew Marvin of Hartford, Ct

In examining this sample, here are a few things that I would like clarified quickly.

  1. How old were Edward and Margaret Marvin when Reinold was born? 

  2. How long had they been married? 

  3. Did either have previous relationships? 

  4. What is Reinold’s birth order?

  5. Where is Great Bently, England? 

  6. What are the culture and geography like?

  7. What religion was St Mary’s church affiliated with? 

  8. What historical events were taking place in 1594? 

  9. Was it a peaceful time in England? 

  10. Who was on the throne?

  11. Where is Lyme, Connecticut? 

  12. How many people lived in Lime? 

  13. Who were the rulers?

  14. Why was Lyme important? 

  15. How old was Reinold when he died?

  16. Where did he marry Marie ___? 

    1. Perhaps there is little to go off record-wise, but did they marry in England or Connecticut?

  17. What? Reinhold’s wife was suspected of witchcraft? 

    1. This detail certainly deserves more investigation!

    2. Lyme isn’t Salem. Do you mean the Salem Witch Trials were more widespread?

Descendants of Reinold and Matthew Marvin of Hartford, Ct.
  1. How much land did Reinhold inherit?

  2. Was it good land?

  3. Was the land entailed?

  4. Were there tenant farmers associated with the land?

  5. How far apart is Moyses or Mose from Great Bently?

  6. John Turner and Reinold were overseers in 1625.

    1. Why is this recorded in St. Mary’s Register?

    2. What is an overseer?

  7. Who is John Turner?

  8. Who are these additional men mentioned?

    1. What are all the church positions listed?

    2. What was a 'church warden'?

  9. Regarding the servant burials,

    1. how many servants did Reinold have?

    2. What jobs would they have done?

  10. Regarding the 1636 Tax

    1. What is 'Tendringe Hundred'?

    2. How much are two shillings and sixpence worth?

    3. Why was the tax unpopular?

  11. How many shares did Reinold have in the “Essex Ship Money”?

    1. Who were the other investors?

    2. What percentage of the shares did Reinold have?

Notice how many details need further explanations in these two brief pages?

I can go on, and on, and on.

The purpose of this activity is not to necessarily answer all the questions right now. Instead, re-reading a published story is to find what needs further explanation.

You can accomplish this critical read in 15-minute sessions for a few days or weeks.

For more ideas that can help you evaluate records in your genealogy research, read the following:

Follow Up With The Author

If the original author is still alive, you can send them your ‘Please explain further’ list of questions to help them improve their writings.

If the original author is deceased, you can seek out answers in the future or turn the questions over to other family researchers.

The beauty of critically reading previous works is that these earlier editions of our family histories can become better like a peer-reviewed paper in academia.

page from family history with title How to Critically Read a Published Family history
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The point is, don’t think you’re too busy to do genealogy. Instead, find something you can do that fits into your schedule and interests. Your contribution is priceless.

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