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Monday, October 1, 2012

Think Rationally, Look Carefully

In the last couple of days I have seen a number of pedigrees from different people who were looking at their families for essentially the first time.  I had some time to view their existing information critically. In four different pedigrees of the four different people, all from FamilySearch Family Tree, there were the same set of problems:

1. The dates given for births, marriages and deaths did not match up with common sense or logic.
2. There were unexplained gaps between marriage dates and the dates shown for the children or between children.
3. The names shown for ancestors were inconsistent and multiple marriages were shown with different sets of parents.

In each case the person I was helping saw no problem with the data until I explained the problems. Even when I thought they understood the problems, they still saw no real reason to do anything about the inconsistencies. This information had been entered somewhere into the databases making up the FamilySearch Family Tree by their relatives and/or ancestors. This could have happened with any one or more of the online family tree program.

One of basic concepts of genealogical research has to be the concept of rationality. Do the entries, dates, names, places make sense? How old were the parents when the children were born? If children were born in different places, do you know why? How old were people when they died? These, plus many other questions help resolve basic issues with the data in a pedigree. So genealogy programs have a built-in time line, or ability to view the data superimposed on a list of national or international events. Other programs have error checking capabilities to check whether or not a county existed at the time entered or whether other information entered is reasonable. But there is no program that will do your job for you as a researcher.

Before entering a date or place in your database, think about it. Is it reasonable? Is it consistent with information you already know to be accurate and correct? This is not say that there won't be surprises and strange things happening, but in those cases, as long as you figure out what is happening, you can document your sources to support your conclusions.

In one of the files I looked at the last few days, the father was supposed to be born in Ireland, but died in Scotland. His children were born in Ireland. My question was why did he die in Scotland? I suppose you could imagine dozens of scenarios to explain what happened, but the real question was what was the source for the death in Scotland? And did they have the right person? One thing that alerted me to a potential problem was a change in the spelling of the surname from the grandfather to the father (who had a different name and died in Scotland) to the son (who lived in Ireland and had his name spelled the same way as the grandfather).

Spelling, inconsistent dates, name changes, inconsistent places, all these are clues that the information on a pedigree or family group record is questionable and further research is warranted. Is the record complete? Does it make sense? How much of the information has valid sources? Have you checked the sources? No one inconsistency is necessarily indicative of a problem. For example, spelling is somewhat arbitrary. Variations in spelling have little or no significance in identifying people unless it becomes an issue. But spelling variations only become a non-issue when there are sufficient additional sources to overcome the questions that arise. In this example, you could substitute any sort of variation or inconsistency in the place of name variations. The variations raise flags that require additional research.

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