Recently I received a letter asking how to research a family tree when you are so far back that you are finding a number of different versions of the family tree. His question was how do you clean up such a tree and then deal with those you have asked for information, because not everyone can be correct.
While I am sure that many of us would love to have such a problem, the plethora of family genealogy that exists for some lineages can be extremely confusing. These lineages become confused by the republishing of inaccurate data. It becomes difficult to know just what the truth is. And sometimes none of the published genealogies will have it right.
Just because it has been published doesn't always make it true.
Understanding the Research Process
You can find a majority of published genealogies for certain localities. New England is one of the most heavily published localities. There are books on the families in given counties or towns. There are published vital records. There are published family histories. However, not all of these resources are created equal.
We need to evaluate the resources we are using. If the author of the work didn't list the sources used, then you need take the information listed in it as questionable. For those resources that do include a listing of the sources used, it is always a good idea to return to those sources to see what they say for yourself.
Interpretation is Half the Battle
Genealogical research is in a large degree interpretation. When we view a given record, unless it states outright that John Smith is the son of David and Alice Smith, we make judgments based on the interpretation of the records being used. Sometimes, unfortunately, the interpretation is not always accurate. This results in wrong information being shared with others, usually in the form of a published genealogy.
Researching for Truth
What is necessary is that we take whatever published genealogies we locate with speculation. It is important that we verify the details found in such published genealogies. While there are times that all we have available is these published sources, whenever possible we should strive to build our genealogy on original, primary resources.
Sometimes this means that it is necessary that we search page by page through unindexed records. Recently a fellow researcher did just this and disproved a long accepted lineage. She was not necessarily loved by all, but her research was accurate and was backed up by original documents.
Once you have done the research and have discovered where someone else's research is not correct, generally they will appreciate the heads up. I suggest that when you do this, that you supply them with copies of the records you have located that dispute the conclusions they have arrived at.
Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is an award-winning author of several genealogy how-to books, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, The Genealogist's Computer Companion, and Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See more advice from Rhonda in her columns Expert Tips, Tigs and Trees, and Overheard in the Message Boards.