The Skeptical Genealogist


One of my hobbies is genealogy.  It doesn’t appeal to me for the usual reasons.  I have no desire to discover illustrious ancestors.  I don’t have children who I wish to teach about their heritage.  I don’t have any burning questions about who I am or where I came from.  I just like the research and the organization.  It’s very exacting, time-consuming work, which I find relaxing in a weird way.

I’m also a history buff, and there’s nothing that makes you feel really involved in the past like knowing your ancestor was there.  It’s a cliché, but it makes the past come alive.  I try to picture what it was like at the battle of Petersburg during the Civil War, where one ancestor died.  I like to imagine the early days of Massachusetts, Virginia and North Carolina, when my ancestors were carving a life out of what had been wilderness.  I feel awe when I read about women in my family having 12 or 14 children, especially considering how many of my ancestors died in childbirth. 

I try to approach genealogy from a skeptical viewpoint, which means I am all about the evidence.  I love finding records, anything from census records to marriage registers to property transfers.  I especially love stories, even though I take them all with a grain (or pound) of salt.  I like trying to find the kernels of truth in family lore and figuring out how the story changed through the years.  Of course just as family stories are not always true, neither are records.  Even birth certificates and marriage logs have errors. 

So doing genealogy can give you a good education not only in basic research techniques, but in judging evidence.  Just as you look at a medical study and determine its reliability by taking into account the size of the study, the length of the study, the funding, etc., you look at a historical record and find out who provided the information, when they provided it, whether it matches other evidence you have and so on.  It’s impossible to ever say positively that something is a fact after you get back two or three generations, but you can be fairly certain.

We have an abundance of records in the U.S. for the last 100-200 years (longer in cities, less so in rural areas.)  It’s easy to trace your family tree when you can use census records, death certificates, the social security death index, newspaper archives, court records, wills, and marriage certificates, as well as the memories of your elderly relatives.  With luck, maybe there will even be a family Bible with records inside or a tree someone made up long ago.  It’s when you get farther back than 1700 or 1750 that things get tricky. 

Surprisingly, after a period when records can be few and far between, things actually get easier if you can get back far enough.  That’s because someone else will have done the work for you already.   You’ll have so many ancestors once you get back to the 1600’s or 1500’s, that some of them will be the same as those of genealogists who have worked everything out. 

That can be wonderful, but it can also be a minefield.  While the internet has made things much easier for researchers, it’s also made it easier to pass on errors.  Sites like ancestry.com and programs like Family Tree Maker are wonderful tools, but they make it the work of a moment to copy someone else’s typos or wrong assumptions into your tree. 

One of my pet peeves is people who don’t check for simple mistakes.  In my own recent research I’ve found ancestors who lived for 160 years, ancestors who lived in the United States in the 1400’s (who were not Native Americans) and ancestors born after their children’s birth.  It’s possible that someone was married when they were 13 or died when they were 102, but it’s not bloody likely that they had a child when they weren’t alive yet.  If you’re a genealogist, do the math!

I think some people are so excited to find out that someone famous (or even infamous) might be an ancestor, that they accept some very questionable results.  Yes, most of us are descendants of someone famous (more on that in a future post) but proving it is a different story.  Please remember to be skeptical and consider the sources.

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