One of the first steps in tracing your ancestry should be to check to see if anyone has already written a genealogy and family history about a branch of your family. A "genealogy cousin," related to you by a common ancestor in the sixth generation, might have compiled and published a book about your family. Though this book may not include all descendants down to you or your parents or grandparents, it could help you make a connection to another generation. If a published genealogy exists, it can save you countless hours of research. Or, it could create countless hours of research if you discover the genealogy has flaws and wasn't well researched.
Finding a Published Genealogy
There are many online sites to help you find published family histories, such as the Family History Library's site ; the Library of Congress catalog ; and Genealogy Library . At Genealogy Library you can find nearly 3,000 family history books online. These concentrate mostly on those published between 1880 and 1920, works that are now in the public domain. The site adds three new family histories each day. For a monthly subscriber fee, you can gain access to the collection.
Just because you don't find a reference to your surname at any of these sites, it doesn't mean that no written family history exists. Sometimes the "book" is no more than photocopied pages bound in a notebook and distributed only among family, so make sure you check with all of your relatives. Typically, however, an author who goes to the trouble of compiling a family history will make it available at one library or another.
Analyzing the Quality and Accuracy of the Published Genealogy
Once you find or obtain a copy of a compiled genealogy, you need to evaluate whether its information is reliable and accurate. Remember the old adage that just because it's in print (or online) doesn't make it true. Look for reviews of the genealogy in respected journals and newsletters, such as the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, The American Genealogist, and the Federation of Genealogical Societies' Forum. Reviews usually appear within a year or two of the book's publication and give insights into the work's strengths and weaknesses.
Look to see if the book is documented; that is, did the author cite for each fact a source of the information? Then, fact check some of the author's sources. Are you able to find a document based on the footnotes or endnotes? Reputable genealogists always include references so other researchers can acquire the documents themselves. If you have trouble locating a document from a reference, the author was not careful and did not adhere to the standards for documentation established by genealogical professionals and scholars.
Let's look at some examples of how to analyze a published family history.
On pages 56 and 57 of Descendants of Joseph Easton, Hartford, Connecticut, 1636-1899, compiled by William Starr Easton in 1899, Harriet (Symonds) Easton is listed as the wife of Agis Easton. This genealogy records Harriet Symonds as Agis's second wife, that there were no children by this marriage, and that Harriet died at the age of twenty-seven on 23 March 1850. Typical for publications during time (1880s-1920s), little or no sources are given for any information.
In pursuing original records to document her death, I looked at the vital records for East Hartford, Connecticut, where Harriet died. These did not record her death; however, I did find the birth and death of a daughter of Agis and Harriet, also named Harriet. This infant died at the age of three weeks in September 1849. Easton either failed to record Harriet's child in his published genealogy, or he was unaware of her existence.
A look at cemetery inscriptions for East Hartford, showed Harriet G. Easton, wife of Agis, died 25 March 1850, age twenty-seven. There was no mention of daughter Harriet. Death notices in the Hartford Courant and the Colombian Register also gave this same death date and age. This 25 March death date is two days off from Easton's account.
Because Easton did not cite his sources, we have no way of knowing where he got his information; but obviously, it was not from the same sources I used.
I recently found a published family history on the Carmacks, titled The Carmack Family, by Charles W. Peckham Sr. (1998). Because the origins of Cornelius Carmack of colonial Maryland have baffled family researchers for decades, I was anxious to see if Peckham had uncovered anything new.
Peckham postulates that Cornelius was not the immigrant ancestor, as descendants have long surmised. Instead, he believes that Cornelius was born in Cecil County, Maryland, about 1681. Peckham also listed a possible father for Cornelius -- a Christopher Carmick -- who was born probably in Scotland in 1653 and was transported to Maryland in 1678 aboard the ship St. George of London. That's new information, but how accurate is it? Even though the author credits numerous professional genealogists as working on the Carmack family history, I was skeptical, considering many descendants had been working on this line for decades and never uncovered these details.
My first course of action was to analyze the source citations. I noticed that some of the information came from published sources, such as abstracts of records compiled by another researcher. I then looked at Peckham's argument for connecting Christopher and Cornelius as father and son. Although the author carefully noted that the identity of Christopher as Cornelius's father was "pure assumption," he apparently based this assumption solely on Christopher coming to America before Cornelius was allegedly born in 1681, and that this Christopher was supposedly the right age to be Cornelius's father.
So I checked out Peckham's source. Peckham references Gust Skordas's The Early Settlers of Maryland. This book then had a reference to the original record -- patents series of the Maryland Land Office, liber 15, folio 553 -- which allowed me to find a microfilm copy of the original record to examine myself. The record indeed named Christopher, along with 179 other people, who were transported in 1678 and claimed for headright land grants. It did not give anything more, however, such as Christopher's age, where he was from, or what became of him. For all I know, Christopher could have been dead upon arrival, since all the headright claimant was required to do was present a list of the names for whom he paid passage. It didn't matter if one of the transported had died on board ship or after arrival. Maybe this is why Peckham's researchers found no further record of Christopher in America.
Based on this information alone, I can't accept Peckham's theory that Christopher was Cornelius's father, so I'll use Peckham's work as clues, do my own original research, and draw my own conclusions.
Remember, finding published genealogies on your family is a starting point, not the end of your research. Even if the book is well documented and you are satisfied that the lineage covered is sound, no family history is comprehensive. There are always other surnames to pursue that aren't covered in this particular book. Look for a published genealogy for all of your lines. But remember to use them cautiously, not as gospel truth, until you analyze and evaluate for yourself whether the information is accurate.
An expanded version of this article appeared in the June 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine .
Here are points to remember when you locate a published genealogy and family history:
- Both good and bad published genealogies exist.
- Evaluate what you find. Check the author's sources. Remember, a bad genealogy perpetuates errors from other published sources and fails to cite properly sources used.
- Try to locate all reviews written about the book. Don't rely on only one reviewer's opinion.
- Look at the author's sources. Is there a heavy reliance on other published sources, databases, or Internet sites? Or did the author do original research, citing historical documents such as wills, deeds, censuses, vital records, etc.?
- Does the published genealogy have conflicting information from what you have learned about your family from other sources?
- Do the dates make sense? For example, a woman born in 1870 can't give birth in 1875. A man born in 1742 won't be getting married in 1753.
- Are there a lot of typographical errors? If the author wasn't concerned with proofreading, was he or she concerned about the accuracy of the genealogy data?