Verify what?

Alicia Crane WilliamsThere appears to be a bit of trepidation among new researchers about what is meant by “verifying” sources. It probably sounds horrendously difficult, time consuming, and redundant, but it doesn’t have to be as hard as some would think – and any time spent spent “auditing” sources can return great benefits. Here are a few pointers.

When assessing whether a source, or part of a source, needs verifying, consider the following:

How old is the source? Older is not necessarily bad. Information in older genealogies may have been collected from family members who had direct knowledge of events and/or records, Bibles, diaries, letters, etc., that are not available to us today. However, older usually means before photocopy machines, microfilm readers, and digital uploads to the Internet were invented. As an example, today if I want to access a Berkshire County, Massachusetts deed I don’t have to get in the car and drive all the way across the state to Pittsfield. I can see the digital version on www.familysearch.org. I can also print a copy of the deed, sometimes enlarged and enhanced if the handwriting is difficult, and then carefully transcribe, edit, and proof by typing it directly into the computer. In the “old” days, I would have had to hand copy or abstract from the deed in the court house, then try to read my infamously bad handwriting when I got home. The authors of older sources might never have accessed land and probate records at all because of travel limitations; if they did, the validity of their transcriptions could be influenced by such things as how close to closing time they were trying to scribble everything down.

Does the source cite its sources? It is always easier to assess the completeness of research done by an author if the work includes a bibliography and footnotes. Of course, not all footnotes are equal – “Aunt Mabel’s recollections” won’t hold water if she is recollecting things that happened 100 years before she was born.

What are the “easiest” facts to verify first? Have the town vital records been published? All of the published vital records for Massachusetts can be easily accessed through www.americanancestors.org. Comparing dates given in a source to the published vital records can be an adventure, especially where “double” dating is involved. Is that birth year 1653 accurate or was the original record 1651 “old style,” which was converted properly by someone to 1651/52, then reconverted improperly by someone else to 1652, then to 1652/53, and finally to 1653? Have the old style months been correctly converted? Were numbers transposed?

All good questions to ask!

More to come.

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia is the lead genealogist on the new NEHGS study project, Early New England Families, 1641-1700. Prior to joining the NEHGS staff, she compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant, the Alden Family Five Generations project, and the Harlow Family : Descendants of Sgt. William Harlow (1624/5-1691) of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University. In October 2016, Alicia was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.

7 thoughts on “Verify what?

  1. This is an issue I have really been wrestling with in the last few years. Obviously it is fairly easy to verify 19th Century events, especially when the digital images are often available.
    It is also true that family biographies of the 19th Century can be horrendously inaccurate, rather like modern unsourced family trees posted on the internet. I have had an article accepted for publication in the Register which debunks a claim from a 19th Century biography of the Terry family.
    Yet there are so many instances when there are no records, say from the South, only published accounts by descendants, who are a few generations away from the people they are discussing.
    Despite my training at Boston University I have accepted some of these unprovenanced lines, if they seem plausible given the context. If there are firm dates of birth than I am even more likely to accept the information on the likelihood that there was at an earlier point access to a family bible.
    Consider for instance the lineage of the Helm family documented in an almost unobtainable book called The History of the Helm Family of Kentucky by Rev. Ben Helm, which among things represents some contributions by a brother of my great grandfather, Thomas Patrick Carothers. The book is typical in that the author has gathered information from everybody he could find, never cites any sources, but sets out marriages, deaths and births with exact dates. Always reserving final judgment, I tentatively consider the assertions generally accurate (but I have found errors there too.)

    1. Congrats on the article acceptance.

      Debunking prior claims is much of what we’ll be doing for another, oh, 200 years. Likely it will never catch up to the original assertion, so long as that “source” remains in print, which now means “published” on internet archive.org as well as at Google, etc.

      So long as organizations keep reprinting volumes by people like Pope, so long will they abet the propagation of those errors.

    2. Erica, you are, of course, dealing with the other end of the genealogical elephant, and we’ll undoubtedly get to some posts about “black holes”!
      This is where our training and experience kicks in and we make educated judgments based on our accumulated knowledge. There are some Alden lineage papers that I have approved entirely on “gut instinct,” because they are plausible and I don’t have reason to disprove them. I look forward to reading your Terry article.

  2. For several years I wanted to find the names of the 12 children of Prosper Montgomery Wetmore, a merchant in New York City. Using newspapers, census records, and any other documents I could think of, I found 9. I learned that Wetmore’s papers were at Princeton, and so went to that library to see what I could find. There was, indeed, a list f 12 names. However, it was written on lined notebook paper, in pencil. I have no idea when the document was inserted into the Princeton records- or who wrote the names. I was able to find other documents relating to one name I had not had. Perhaps the other two died young.

    1. That’s OK, really. What matters is how you present the information on the children, and are up front on the process you went through to verify their existence, sans real VRs.

      If it is to appear in a footnote, rather than in what Dave Dearborn referred to as commentary on the children just before their listing, then it might appear as:

      NNN. “List of Children”, Box D, Wetmore Papers, XXXXX Library, Princeton University. This is a single leaf of lined notebook paper with the names written in pencil in the same handwriting throughout. It dates from no later than when the family deposited these papers in YYYY at Princeton. Its actual date of composition prior to that is unknown. Research confirms 10 of the 12 names, so I have accepted the other two, nnnn and nnnn, as likely having died young.

      Use something like that as the citation for the older UNK, and then, ah “Ye Gude Olde Dayes!”, op. cit. when footnoting the younger UNK.

Leave a Reply