Friday, April 29, 2011

Hank Jones - "When the Sources Are Wrong"

Hank Jones was the featured presenter at the Chula Vista Genealogical Society program meeting on Wednesday, 27 April;  his topic was "When the Sources Are Wrong."

Hank is, of course, a well-known actor, author and genealogical speaker (see who now lives in the San Diego area, and CVGS has been fortunate to have him in 2010 and 2011.

In his talk, he noted that erroneous sources are part of the territory in genealogy. Each and every family historian has, at one time or other, run into a source that is wrong.  Sometimes, however, the actual source is just fine: it's our perception of that old document that may need a bit of work. The talk discussed our common problem of erroneous sources and offers solutions as to what to do when we encounter them.

Derivative sources were discussed. The genealogical accuracy of the late-19th early 20th century "mug book" sketches of living families may be fine, but colonial generations may be erroneous. Census indices may have errors (for example, a published census index of the 1830 Federal Census of Maryland showed 52% error when compared with the original documents!). The pre-1930 family histories (which often lacked the Jacobus emphasis on documentation and weighing all of the evidence) should be critically reviewed.  Some of the "saints and sinners" of the genealogical past are discussed, and names set forth as to which ones to trust (not Gustave Anjou!).

From his long work with German church books in the northeastern USA, Hank discussed the quirks of old church books, with special note of errors made therein that are contemporary with the actual event - enough to send modern-day genealogists blithering and blabbering off into the sunset. Case studies of actual errors found in church records were presented, with solutions offered as to what to do when errors are discovered therein when compared with other known documentation.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion was the classical way that Hank developed the family sketches in his Palatine books - he used the church books (in German) to make family group sheets to capture all of the details about families, and to link them together.  He had 17,000 family group sheets!  He found it best to look for patterns in the records, and to watch for inconsistencies in the records (for instance, one pastor mixed the columns for witnesses and parents, resulting in many grandparents being named as the parents in subsequent transcriptions and indexes). 

Hank had many words of wisdom for today's genealogists:

"Nothing is ever where it should be."  You may find marriages mixed into births in original records, living siblings may have the same names, and many events were not registered.

"Original sources are often wrong."  The attending midwife or doctor may list the mother's names as "unknown," a church book may provide a wrong birthplace, the writer of the record may not understand the informant's speech or dialect.

"Keep your antenna up when evaluating sources."  "Cousin" and "nephew" did not always mean what they do today, and a "brother" or "sister" might be part of a religious order.

"Put your 21st century minds in the 18th century lives.  Try to be your ancestor"  Don't assume that our ancestors knew what you know, or that their lives were like present-day, or even 20th century times.

"Historians don't have to be genealogists, but genealogists have to be historians."  Amen!

"Write down what you know, and provide your own interpretation and opinion.  Use the 3 P's - perhaps, possibly and probably - appropriately."

"The mark of a really great genealogist is to be willing to modify their own work."  New records are found that provide additional evidence for conclusions.  Amen!

"Bob Anderson's The Great Migration Begins volumes are the books I wanted to write."  I think Hank did fine with the much more difficult to research Palatine books!

This was an engaging, humorous and serious talk about an important subject. 


Rita A. said...

I haven't seen Hank in years. He's a great speaker and a nice guy. Thanks for sharing.

Elizabeth O'Neal said...

Sounds like it was a great talk, and one from which I could have benefited, since I'm dealing with this situation at the moment!

Jim's Girl said...

Excellent points. I'd like to share it with my readers.

Jim's Girl Family History Blog at

Geolover said...

Hank's original series on the Palatines is without parallel - magnificent piece of work. Those who want to search for his website or citations for his books should search for "Henry Z Jones" (no period after the 'Z'). He is also a terrific pianist.