Thursday, July 27, 2006

Is genealogy a fun pastime?

One of the best articles published in a newspaper in a long time (IMHO) about genealogy is titled "Buried roots: Documents available on Internet make tracing families a fun pastime" by Jackie Burrell in the Contra Costa Times, which is published on the east side of San Francisco Bay in California.

The article quotes several researchers, and provides information about genealogy research at the LDS Family History Library, including local FHCs, and

Perhaps the best part of the article is the Potential Pitfalls section, which includes:

1. It's gotten significantly easier to trace family roots, thanks to the enormous amount of information now available online. That includes digitized images of census reports, immigrating passenger lists and an enormous number of pedigree charts -- family trees -- that other genealogy buffs share on the Internet. But that also means that erroneous information gets passed along more easily, too. Verify your information by cross-checking it against other sources. A birth date, for example, appears on birth and death records, and can be extrapolated from census reports, which include a person's age.

2. It's easy to make mistakes or attach a wrong ancestor to your family tree if you skip generations or start with a famous ancestor. Start with yourself, then your parents, then your grandparents and work backward one generation at a time, verifying each link with supporting documents -- birth records, census data, marriage certificates, etc.

3. Assume dates are estimates unless proven otherwise. After all, census takers are human, too. They occasionally misspell things, write down the wrong number or scrawl illegibly. And there's no telling what they were told. Your lovely ancestor may have decided to be 29 again that day.

4. Names you think are unique may not be. Don't leap to the conclusion that the Sophronia Jones you found on the 1860 census is your great-great-grandmother Sophronia, until you've checked her spouse, parents or children's names and found matches there, too.

5. It's a no-brainer that birth and land records from foreign countries are written in other languages. But some countries use names differently, too. Norwegian last names, for example, were patronymic up until the early part of the 20th century. Hakon Olsen's son would have been Olav Hakonsen (or Hakonson or Hakonsson), and his daughter would have been Sigrid Hakonsdotter. And many names changed when the family came to the United States.

6. Don't assume everyone is family. Census takers recorded members of a household. That includes any lodgers, servants, nannies or widowed in-laws living with your family.

7. Use common sense. If you discover that your great-great-grandparents were in kindergarten when they wed, you've probably made a mistake.

8. And finally, the more organized your research and the more careful you are to document each link, the less likely you'll be to make a mistake.

That is a pretty good summary of pitfalls - certainly food for thought.

Data available on the Internet has surely made searching certain resources, especially census and immigration records, much faster and easier (due to search engines that accept wild cards and a combination of different facts).

However, I have a major problem with the article. If a non-genealogist read this, he might get the impression that all of the records he needs to search his ancestry back to whenever is now available online at or on other web sites. Of course, we all know that that is still far from the truth. The article should have made that point.

Also, it should have noted that the FHL was digitizing all of their microfilm and microfiche records, which would make accessing the probate, land, tax, town, and other records easier and faster. It may also put a lot of FHCs out of business.

All in all, it's a good article, and if newspapers in our communities wrote an article like this once in awhile, we would have more folks using the FHCs and attending genealogy society meetings and conferences.

Hat tip to Leland Meitzler, who blogged about this earlier in the day at his site,

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