Devon Noel Lee
How Reliable Are Published Genealogies?
Have you ever wondered how accurate published family history and genealogy books are?
I'm happy to discuss how to evaluate those compiled genealogy sources to determine if the book you're trying to use is reputable, reliable, or just full of junk.
How accurate and reliable are those published family histories?
Well, it may be full of junk.
The most famous fraudulent genealogy is " it was titled very promisingly, "The Horn papers; Early Westward Movement on the Monongahela and upper Ohio, 1765-1795." You can read this for free on the Internet Archive.
This book looks authentic and authoritative with:
excerpts from diaries
transcriptions records, like tax records
pictures of artifacts
Unfortunately, a newspaper article published in 1947 called it the "Great Horn Swoggle." Additionally, some researchers refuted this entire piece of work in the William and Mary Quarterly. You can also read about the Horn Papers from the Library of Congress.
I didn't share that to make you think nothing published is accurate. Many people in genealogy say, "Just because it's online doesn't mean it's accurate."
Well, the same can be true about something in print. Just because it's in print doesn't mean it's accurate. There is a possibility that anything printed might not be valid.
Reviewing Published Family Histories in Our Genealogy Research
Now that you know that published genealogies aren't always accurate, how do you judge them to determine their reliability?
In the video mentioned above, I showcased a few sampling of published family histories. These include:
a lineage book from the Daughters of the American Revolution
A register-style genealogy book published in 1994 known as the Comfort Book
A register-style genealogy with some citations known as The Comfort Families of America
a published generational family history with extensive source citations called The Descendants of Reinhold and Mathew Marvin
To view these examples, watch this video
How do you know if any of these printed books are accurate?
According to a blog post produced by the New York Public Library: stated that family historians often "show a lack of genealogical ability and a surprising preponderance of credulity, especially where an attempt is made to connect the family written about with some ancient English house."
Oh, no! Should I worry about the Reinhold and Mathew Marvin book because it traces the family ancestry to Essex County, England?
Principles for Assessing the Accuracy of a Published Genealogy
Before we begin panicking, perhaps we should review a few guiding principles.
1. Look for Evaluations of a Genealogy By Others
The article, Finding and Using Published Genealogies from Genealogy.com, suggests looking for evaluations and reviews of those early family histories. These critiques may appear in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, the American Genealogist, or the Federation of Genealogy Societies.
I had never thought of searching for evaluations like you would look for a criticism of a book by Jane Austin.
2. Search for Source Citations
If there are citations in a book, fact check some of the author's sources. For example, are you able to find a document based on the footnotes or endnotes?
The Genealogy.com article also says, "Reputable genealogists always include references so other researchers can acquire the original sources themselves."
If you can not find a stated genealogy source, why can't you?
Did it never exist, to begin with?
Was it damaged or destroyed?
If you can locate the cited source, does the documentation say what the author or compiler says it says?
The Comfort Families of America and the Reinhold and Matthew Marvin books do have findable records. But, for the most part, they support the claims in the published genealogies.
3. Search for Fact Confirmation
The Legacy Tree Genealogists company suggests investigating how well the story is documented. So, not only do you want to look for citations. But also see if you can find other documentation for the stories.
A recent project of mine focused on Luther Titus, a pioneer to Los Angeles County, California. Luther is not only reasonably well documented in published and compiled genealogies, but he's also well documented in land records, census records, newspaper articles, and the like.
When you review a published genealogy, see an ancestor appears in multiple sources.
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4. Find the Informant of the Evidence
The next thing is to determine who initially provided the information to the person compiling the research.
Read the forward in any of the books you discover. You want to know how the book came about, who supplied some of these original records, and when.
In the Comfort Families of America book, the authors indicated that they did consult letters, diaries, bibles, census records, and land records. The authors explained their limited citations in this fashion.
"We're not attempting a formal genealogy. We have given little space to the citation of sources of our information or to our proof of our statement. We have preferred to give our space to genealogically unimportant, but personally interesting or revealing bits about members of the family when they are available."
What does the forward or author commentary tell you about how a book came to be?
By contrast, the Reinhold and Matthew Marvin book wanted to prove everything in detail. Moreover, the authors tied into an English family that wanted readers to trust that lineages' accuracy.
5, Analyze the historical context
Legacy Tree Genealogists also suggestions asking whether the facts make sense within the historical contents of the time?
This tip brings me back to my infamous Charles Gordon, who's always connected to Nathaniel Charles Gordon.
Charles Gordon is always in Pennsylvania.
Nathaniel is almost always in North Carolina and sometimes in South Carolina.
The context of the era doesn't support him and his wife hopping up to Pennsylvania only to return to the Carolinas.
However, the big kicker problem for many published genealogies centers on when and where his children were born. Apparently, three kids were born in the same year in three different states to the same woman.
I'm going to vote no on this information. It fails the historical context principle.
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New Evidence May Refute the Previous Research
Even if a previously published family history meets the criteria for reliability, it may still have inaccuracies.
New evidence may come to light that overturns your previously discovered research.
To learn what to do when that happens, watch the FHF Extra members-only video entitled, "What do you do when research overturns your previously discovered conclusions?"
More Genealogy Research Tips
For more tips and doing genealogy research, read the following: