The internet has made available massive gluts of genealogical and historical information to the ordinary would-be family roots investigator. The catch-22 of this mountain of cyber knowledge is that much of it cannot be verified or legitimized. The average amateur genealogist investigating their family many times takes whatever information they can find as absolute truth only because some other amateur has posted it on a website with enough confidence that it rings of fact. A chain reaction of false information sharing has thus been created in this realm as each person re-posts the information, effectively passing it on, on their own site or in a forum. This illegitimate information definitely crosses into the large databases of the well-known pay sites as well.
You can’t blame the genealogy hungry amateurs for these mistakes, not if you have paid the price in time and money to do the old fashioned, proven methods of research. Libraries seldom scan and post local information on their websites and those locals who have actually compiled the information, say a local deed book for example have long since realized the monetary profit that can be made by selling their hard work. While in the process of gathering research for my book, long before these mounds on internet genealogy sites were formed, I logged countless hours on the road touring libraries from Halifax, Virginia to Austin, Texas. In the process of researching for the revision and update of the same book I find myself resorting to the same out of pocket expenses to visit these and other courthouses, cemeteries and libraries. The bottom-line, it is the only way to be certain of the actual entry which confirms and validates your work.
The one place where all this local information has been accumulated and stored for posterity is the Library of Congress and National Archives. The expense of using the National Archives is almost unbearable. Even when you can or have to afford the price of copies from the Washington D.C. central base you are dependant on some other person locating those exact files and copying what you desire. I found out the hard way that if there is miscommunication and the wrong file is copied and mailed, you still pay for it. There is no substitute for physically going to the Archives and digging through the endless rolls of microfiche on your own. It all depends on how dedicated you are to the concept of accurate research.
When performing a genealogical research investigation the researcher has to look at themselves in the same light as that of a police investigator collecting evidence of a murder. If a piece of evidence is located it needs to be collaborated with another piece of evidence, otherwise it cannot stand alone as absolute. In genealogy we seldom have witnesses that we can interview, so the next best evidence is original documentation. Original documentation is at best difficult, and at worst impossible, to come by. Too many times genealogists can’t accept the fact that “we will never know”. There are blanks that can only be filled in with circumstantial evidence and it is human nature that the investigator takes the easy way out and fills in the blank with this unconfirmed information. The first William Smith that we have desperately been searching for from Scott County, Virginia is conveniently filled in with a deed recorded by Bill Smith of Lee County, Virginia. In the process, not only have we falsified evidence, but we have changed the entire dynamics of our own forefather.
Collaboration of evidence on original documentation has to correspond to, as the police investigator might say, the crime scene. In genealogy that translates to the same area. Take for example the case of a subject forefather who we assume was born in Smith County, Virginia. We must start at the “crime scene” and work in ever increasingly larger circles outward from that ground-zero location. Our first efforts need to be devoted to documents from that county. This can be confusing as well, unless we investigate the history of this county “crime scene”. Most of the original counties were formed from other counties and our forefather’s evidence of life may lie somewhere one hundred miles to the east in another county courthouse. He/she may have lived in the same spot from birth to death but have records scattered across as many as four counties.
So what is it that I consider absolute evidence of life? In the colonial period forefathers can be found in court cases ranging from civil to criminal. When collaborated by last will and testaments, pension statements, tithables, road surveys, censuses, deeds (investigators must be cautious when using deeds due to the commonality of names between uncles, cousins, brothers, fathers, etc.) any two documents can be taken as fact. Fact increases with greater numbers of collaborating documentation.
Military records are powerful official documents and are by far the easiest documents to associate to a particular person. At least in America these documents can range from unit rosters, dispatches, pay rosters, court martial proceedings, discharges, unit histories, order of battle plans, medical records, and the modern form DD-214 used to collectively describe the totality of the veteran’s service. The pension statements used during the Revolutionary War are fantastic documents not only for collaboration of evidence purposes but also to verify the proof of connection between siblings, parents and other extended family members who may have been in that same unit – and typically were from the Revolution to the Civil War. For the most part military records are well kept and seldom lost. Once you associate your forefather into a particular military unit, personal hardships, daily life, and personal beliefs bring the individual to life more than any other peripheral research.
Family bibles and letters are the next best thing after official documentation. Researchers must always take into consideration that handwritten documents may be riddled with misspellings (there was no standard dictionary as today), poor memory, and the omission of events unimportant to the writer but important to today’s researcher. The motivation for creating these personal documents was far different than the motivation of the researcher – we can’t read our own evidence into the writing or fill in blanks with what really isn’t there.
Cemetery visits, obituaries and death notices are perhaps as factual as personal documents. Again newspapers and funeral homes are fallible; I have located more than one mistake on all these pieces of evidence to include a wrong state of birth on my own grandfather’s headstone. Death notices and the pamphlets provided at funeral home services provide excellent information when they are verified as correct but these are modern concepts and may only take you to within the last one hundred years.
In the age of modern technology when investigating cemeteries I recommend that you use a digital camera and take pictures which can later be downloaded and zoomed in on. Don’t just walk off the cemetery with pictures of a single headstone or a family plot – there is a reason that these people were buried there and that is usually some relationship to most of the people there. Don’t get back to your research and find out that your great-great-grandfather’s mother’s father was buried three headstones down and you have to drive back to Maryland to get that information. Take a picture of the cemetery sign if there is one for identifying where the headstones are located later. Take as many photos of individual headstones within that cemetery as time allows – even if they seem unrelated at first glance.
Interviews are my favorite method of collecting information on our forefathers and strong collaborating evidence. Live interviews can take you back as far as one hundred years by personal experience and further through stories passed down through their family. Even in the older interviewees you cannot discount their memories of past events – dementia works to erase memories from the present backwards and childhood memories are generally intact. Interviewees, particularly those who have experienced maturity plus some, don’t like to focus on the “born 1889 – died 1969”, they focus on all the things that lie within that dash in the middle. They focus their interview on the stories and animation of the individuals the interviewer has inquired about – theirs are memories of living not of dates.
It is an absolute necessity that the interviewer solicits and obtains permission to use a recording device during the interview. By some chance this cannot be accomplished then the interviewer must be ready with notebook and pen. Don’t forget to take a photo of the interviewee so the pages or tapes can be associated later with that person. The interviewer must be devoted to the use of open-ended questions and be prepared to listen rather than interrupt. Let the interviewee speak of whatever and whoever they desire.
Be aware when you go to the interview that it is best conducted in familiar surroundings to the interviewee – and not to the convenience of the interviewer. Though this should never have to be said but the interviewer must be polite, courteous, respectful, and tolerant at all times. Interviews are more productive in the long run if the first meeting is for the sole purpose of building trust and rapport. At a minimum the first portion of the initial meeting has to be spent simply getting to know each other.
Once the interview is finished the recordings must be transcribed to more permanent records as soon as possible. This allows the researcher to correct his/her own misspellings, or mistakes while the correct information is fresh in the mind. Should the modern world of technology exceed your original method of recording the interviews must be switched to the up to date source at first chance. An example of this transition lapse/information lost came as recently as the evolution from “floppy discs” to CD/DVDs. It is almost impossible to find a floppy disc reader now so the information recorded there-on can be transferred over to more modern discs.
In the absence of face to face meetings, interviews can be conducted through written communications and these are in many ways better. The written letters you receive from these people become artifacts in and of themselves. The information contained in them can be considered building blocks toward other interviews and the trust is established by the fact that had they not trusted you with that information they would not have written it down. For older folks receiving and writing letters was a very big deal. With either method, written or audio recorded, you must tell the interviewee for what and how that information is to be used. You are in essence taking possession of their ideas and information and using it as your own and you need their permission to do so.
Genealogical research is not easy work. To truly perform it correctly is an enormous undertaking and can not be done either in a hurry or expecting a certain result. There are no perfect and absolute sources and the researcher cannot fall into the trap of anticipating desired results. All sources must be viewed with skepticism and all that cannot be proven through collaboration of peripheral evidence must either be discarded or eyed with a certain contempt. Each day great numbers of newcomers arrive to the ranks of amateur genealogy research. It has become big business. With the desire to make money off of the emotional aspects of individuals finding their roots there is now more than ever a need for researchers to question the legitimacy of information sources and correct where possible the abundant false entries existing. Even when those corrections mean opening up blanks in family charts and researchers being forced to take new, untraveled, and tiresome paths. To do other than what is correct and true is to take from our ancestors their identity and ultimately our own.