Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Grandma never lied...

Until quite recently, access to genealogical records was severely limited, absent a visit to a large genealogical library such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Much of what was accomplished in the way of research consisted of letter writing to relatives or writing for information and making requests to record repositories. When I first started doing my own research about 35 years ago, the only access I had to the U.S. Census was in Salt Lake City on microfilm. So any research I did took place during those once-a-year visits to the Family History Library. So there is a whole generation of would-be genealogists that are relying completely on genealogical research done before the advent of online records and family trees.

The plain reality is and was that genealogical researchers in the 1800s and for most of the 1900s relied on family connections and letter writing for nearly all of their information. Those in Salt Lake City could take advantage of the limited collection of records in the Family History Library, but until the advent of the large microfilm collections and the ability of local libraries to obtain microfilm from Salt Lake City, there were very few resources available to those who lived outside of Salt Lake City. It is the case that some families with the economic means were able to employ researchers, but even these researchers were limited by the availability of records.

One important fact is that those researchers in the 1800s were acquainted with people who were born in the 1700s and got some information first hand. But even this "first hand" information was spotty and subject to errors. During this period of time and continuing into the present, diligent researchers felt a need to publish their findings in book format usually referred to generically as "surname books." Over the years, tens of thousands of these books have accumulated. Many are very limited printings with only a few copies. Some have passed into the online world through digitization and are readily available online. For example, the website has a Books section that contains thousands of these books.

Some of these surname books are genealogical treasures and contain extensive documentation. However, documentation in the vast majority of the books is spotty or nonexistent. It is not wise to dismiss these books as useless because they were often compiled, as I already pointed out, by people who were personally acquainted with those featured in the books. Unfortunately, some of these books have taken on the trappings of "scripture." The stories have been told and retold so many times that they as passed on as "true" irrespective of the documentary evidence that has since been discovered.

Why do I have this apparently negative opinion of the traditional genealogical research? The main reason is that I am the recipient of multiple lines of people who did "genealogy" their entire lives. As I have mentioned in past posts, I also have access to multiple surname books on several of my family lines. Over the years, I have spent innumerable hours evaluating and correcting the information contained in these books. Some of the research was first rate but lacked any substantiating documentation. Some of the errors and false traditions have become so embedded in my greater family, that they may never be entirely corrected.

If you have a "genealogist" in your family line or lines, you need to carefully evaluate your inherited genealogical data. If the traditional information comes with source citations, check those references to verify their accuracy. If the information is in the form of stories or pedigrees and family group records with no sources, be sure and find sources that either support or refute the information contained in the books. But be careful not to take the position that the information you received from a genealogist ancestor may be entirely wrong.

Many members of my immediate family are actively involved in genealogical research. Using the tools available today, we have broken through many of the "brick wall" situations that existed for the past one hundred years or so. However, much of the genealogy as presently reflected in the Family Tree is a mess, to use an understatement. It will likely take many more years to untangle all of the inaccurate and incorrect information. But as I often say, the Family Tree is the solution, not the problem. We are slowly making progress and are adding a huge amount of documentation. Do not be discouraged. It is worth the effort and has the benefit of providing an almost endless supply of the names of ancestors and relatives that need temple work.

The summary and the key: add only information to the Family Tree that is supported by valid and well evaluated sources.

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