It is always a waste of time to "reinvent the wheel." In genealogy we do not want to spend the time and money to discover information that has already been published. Genealogies already in print are a source of information that should not be overlooked. Genealogy is an ancient custom and there are genealogy charts that were created hundreds of years ago. However, until recently, a family genealogy was found almost exclusively in upper class families and its purpose was to show that they were a noble and superior family.
Genealogies of American families from the 19th and early 20th centuries were produced for many families to prove descent from early founding fathers (especially passengers on the Mayflower), ancestors who participated in the Revolutionary War or descent from European nobility. If a black sheep was discovered, his history might be improved upon to make fit reading or his line might be dropped from the book.
Research during this time period (and up until about 20 years ago) was much different than it is now. Amateur genealogists pursued their hobby primarily by writing to other family members to see what they knew of the family. Much of the information came from memory or perhaps one or two documents. If the family had remained in an area for generations, the researcher could pursue local records. Many records were kept at the town level and there were few indexes. Indexes on a statewide level were almost non-existent. Distant records or those in a foreign country would have to be written for and record-keepers in those days were probably just as reluctant to dig through old, stored records as they are now. Most people were never able to take a trip to Europe, let alone one for the purpose of doing genealogy research. Many genealogies from this period did not have source citations. The family had discussed who was related to whom amongst themselves and it was just common knowledge.
For these reasons, these genealogies may contain many errors. The censuses, indexes, vital and church records simply were not available. However, the information contained in these compilations is a good starting place. Information supplied in 1920 could have come from a woman born in 1850. Her great-grandparents could have been alive during the Revolution and may have told their children of their experiences. One of their children would have been this woman's grandparent who could have repeated these stories when she was a child. Thus an oral history of an event 160 years ago could have been passed on with only two tellings. There is often a kernel of truth in family stories. The truth may be somewhat different, but some part of it is probably true. (Although in one family I researched, the family story was the man became a priest and immigrated to Australia where he became a Bishop. It turned out he stayed in Ireland, married and left descendants!)
Beware of Fraudulent Pedigrees
There were also professional genealogists who researched and published books. While these may be more complete and more scholarly, they should also be approached with caution -- even if they have source citations. Genealogy was a source of income and it was almost impossible to verify if the reports were true. One professional genealogist, Gustave Anjou (1863-1942), who did work on many early American families, has been shown to be a forger who created dozens of bogus genealogies. In the Genealogical Journal of the Utah Genealogical Association (vol. 19, nos. 1and2, 1991) there is a fascinating story of how he created genealogies for the unwary and how his own life was a forgery. The easiest method to create a false pedigree, used by Anjou and others, is to begin by doing meticulous research with lots of documentation. A New England family might be researched back to the immigrant. Then that surname would be located in an English parish and traced through the records, again with many citations. Then a false marriage record or will would be created to bridge the gap. Since all the other research was so accurate, no one would question the one document.
The above-mentioned article contains a list of 109 genealogies in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City that were done by Gustave Anjou. Most have been cataloged under Anjou. Not only should these be approached with caution, but any genealogy on these families should be given extra scrutiny as it could be based on the Anjou manuscript.
According to American Genealogist (July 1976), the following "are so unreliable that nothing they say should be accepted without clear and unmistakable verification": Gustave Anjou, Charles H. Browning, C. A. Hoppin, Orra E. Monnette, Horatio Gates Somerby, Frederick A. Virkus and John S. Wurts.
Within the last few years it has become so much easier to do genealogy research and to publish the results. With the availability of original sources on microfilm, later genealogies should be much more accurate and contain more citations. Unfortunately, since genealogy is now a popular hobby, many more people are involved and some are less than careful in their research. There are many people who want to plug into the Internet, "do" their genealogy and move on to a new interest. It is very easy to collect names, enter them into a program, print out a family history, get a few copies made up at the local copy shop and distribute them. Unfortunately, once misinformation is out there, it is very difficult to recall it.
When dealing with newer published genealogies, first look for source citations. Then try to find out something about the author. Is he a member of a genealogy or history society? How long has she been working on this project. (If it was whipped up in six weeks for a family reunion and contains a picture of the family crest and ancestral home in England, be a bit wary!) Correspond with other family members who know the author. Is he an open-minded person who will discuss other possible theories or do events have to confirm to a preconceived version of the family history?
Use printed histories as you do FamilySearch and other genealogy databases, county histories, biographies and all research done by others. They should be considered as leads to be checked with an open mind. It is very possible that you will come across information that the author didn't have which would prove an entirely different interpretation of the data.
Where to Look for Books
Now that you know how to use these tools, where do you find them? Family histories are often very limited editions and there is no one source for all. Every library will have a different collection.
The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has a huge collection and, of course, a list of all of these can be found in the library catalog (surnames section) which is available on either microfiche or CD-ROM at every Family History Center. This listing is especially useful because each history will be indexed under several families -- surnames of those who married into the family or descendants who carried other surnames. Many of the books are available on microfilm, but even if the book you want isn't, you will have the title, author and publisher. You can then have your local library try to locate it through interlibrary loan. You will probably get faster service on interlibrary loan if you locate the lending institution yourself.
The National Genealogical Society and the New England Historical Genealogical Society both have large circulating collections that can be borrowed through the mail. Members can obtain their catalogs for a fee. The Library of Congress also has a large collection. Although it does not circulate, you again will have a title to look for in other places. It has an on-line catalog where you can search for titles and authors.
Some libraries publish a list of books they hold in their genealogy collection. Although you probably will not see any new books of this type printed because so many libraries are making their catalog available online, you may find some older ones in reference libraries. Genealogical and Local History Books in Print lists family histories in print. The current volume has over 4,600 listings. This reference book should be available in many libraries.
If your family lived many years in a particular area, especially if they were prominent citizens, a local genealogical or historical society or local library might have books or articles about the family.
Many library catalogs are available on the Internet, but many of these are Telnet sites which require a special program to access. Others can be accessed using a gopher server. Many libraries have their own system, and you need to take some time to read the instructions on how to do searches.
There are online book services where you can search for books. Blair's Book Service has an online search to locate genealogy books that you can purchase. Many other genealogy booksellers such as Everton Publishers , Frontier Press , Genealogical Publishing Company , HeritageQuest , and others have an on-line catalog.
With so many sources available on the Internet, it is very helpful to download a list of places where you might want to start. Chris Gaunt has compiled a large list of places on the Internet that are helpful to genealogists. As it is formatted now, it takes 283 pages! You can reduce the size with a smaller font or use your word processor to cut and paste and only print those you need. The list gives addresses for many libraries and bookstores. It is available in many locations, among them:
- CompuServe: Roots Forum, Text Library (6), filename RSRCES.INT or RSRCES.ZIP
- AOL: Genealogy Research Area, Genealogy File Libraries, General Genealogy Libraries, Genealogy Tips and Resources, title "Internet Genealogy Sites"
Many genealogy societies publish journals with articles about local families. These pedigrees will not be as extensive as books about one family, but they will often provide corrections to errors that were published years ago. You may find the answer to a long-disputed question about your early American family. If you find a bound collection, check the back of each volume as many journals are indexed on a yearly basis.
The most useful tool for locating articles in journals is PERSI (Periodical Source Index) which indexes names and places in articles in over 2,000 genealogical periodicals. It has been published annually since 1986 by the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana. They are also working on volumes to cover publications 1847-1985.
New England Historical Genealogical Society Register is now available for 1847-1994 on CD-ROM. The 148 volumes have an every name index and you can print out the pages that interest you. It is a great source for people with New England ancestors.
Locating previously published material is always a challenge since there are so many places where it might be found. It is always worth pursuing since it may contain information that has since been lost.