A cautionary tale

Alicia Crane WilliamsOkay, time to get my feet back on the ground. Reader David Cummings recently brought to my attention an error in the Early New England Families Study Project sketch for Samuel Jenney – that the second wife of Samuel’s son, John3 Jenney, was Mary (Mitchell) Shaw, not Phebe (Watson) Shaw. In the pursuant investigation I discovered that I also had the wrong information about John Jenney’s first wife – who was definitely not Margaret Hicks.

So how did that happen? Clearly, I was distracted. Looking now at the original sketch, done two years ago, I see multiple instances where I cited only a single, undocumented secondary genealogy. Red Flag 1! Proper procedure calls for any such single source to be substantiated with a primary source, or at least some corroborating reference. I simply did not finish my research.

By definition the primary individual [in a sketch] and his or her spouses get the most attention…

It is a convenient shortcut to begin composing a sketch by using an already compiled secondary genealogy, but it can backfire if that genealogy has an error that you don’t recognize because you have not done your due diligence. In this case I accepted the information from the book about John3 Jenney’s two wives and even when I looked in Torrey’s New England Marriages Prior to 1700 to see what sources he might have on a John Jenney with wives named Margaret and Phebe and found none (Red Flag 2), I remained oblivious to the correct entries for John Jenney who married first an unidentified woman and second Mary (Mitchell) Shaw.

Part of the problem, too, is that this involves spouses of a child of the primary sketch individual. By definition the primary individual and his or her spouses get the most attention, and while birth, marriage, and death information is provided for their children and spouses, they can get glossed over if one gets distracted.

Needless to say, Version 2 of the Samuel Jenney sketch is in progress and will have a full explanation about what was corrected and why. It all just goes to show why we are always cautioning newcomers not to believe everything in print, no matter who wrote it. Compiling zillions of facts and sources for a genealogy is like shoveling gravel – you will probably get most of it into the pile, but inevitably there will be pebbles that escape.

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.

22 thoughts on “A cautionary tale

  1. This post regarding correcting previously published information – wherever it is published – is indeed a conundrum. For example, lets say we find recently published, quality research by experts like you. Then, as we should, we even check the sources ourselves. Next, we must continually try to find even more recently published work or other documents. And, any of that could be in many locations; on line, in books, or scholarly journals from various researchers or genealogical organizations. We all know that material published even as recently as the current year has errors. It is never ending, and a certainly a concern about keeping up with it all. How do we manage, when being a member of every society that publishes genealogy, or having direct access to good libraries, is not potentially feasible? Fortunately for you as an author, Vita Brevis, is a fine method of advising interested researchers of corrections. Oh, for the magical amazing global index! But, of course, that won’t solve it all either. Sigh….

    1. Carole, Indeed a Catch-22. The numbers are against us, unfortunately. Billions of ancestors to document and so few genealogists! The best we can do is keep publishing corrections to corrections.

  2. Thank you Alicia for your data and all of the additional info you and your fellow Genealogists so kindly give us day in and day out. I am working on my Hilton/Archibald Family History and it takes weeks to transcribe approx. 175 pages of data along with many more pages of research to follow. IO take my time because of the vast amount of Books and Footnotes that there are in info that have been in the works for many many years. I have lots of data to double check still. All the best with your many BITS and BYTES. Love to all, Paul Morris Hilton.

  3. Alicia, I want to thank you for indicating that even very accomplished genealogists occasionally make errors in their work. I recently found a similar error in my efforts in tracing a somewhat distant ancestor and found it difficult to accept. It helps to know that it can happen to anyone.

  4. I have an ancestor from earliest Virginia where possibility for mistaken written genealogy have always been high, and there are books contesting his correct wife that have been written back and forth for over a century. It seems the late 1800s had a lot of genealogists who had every reason to get it right being closer to the primary sources and just published much unfinished research. Because of their age these histories are often taken as correct. It is a wonderful thing you have the opportunity to find some of these and document the corrections. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Welcome to the club. I am sorry to hear that there was an overlooked mistake. I have always believed you were human and even computers can make mistakes as they are driven by humans. Please do not allow this to upset you. You have a great record and it stands on its own. Wish you luck in the future and thank you for all the wonderful things you do for all of us.

    1. Jim, Thank you. I am indeed human and this isn’t the first, nor will it be the last mistake, but it does give one a kick in the butt to keep trying to do better.

  6. There is a compilation or a large genealogy I should remember the name of, but can’t recall at this moment, that begins with the statement “A work of this magnitude must necessarily contain some errors …” or words to that effect. Any good genealogist knows the humbling experience of having errors in his/her work pointed out. Like everything else in life, genealogy is all about learning, and the great thing is that it never stops presenting new challenges. I wonder if a website dedicated to correcting errors would work, as a central clearing house? But maybe someone has already done that. I have a few to contribute from my own work that I wish hadn’t happened.

    1. Jane, thanks. The idea has been bandied around, but logistics probably make it impractical. Someone would have to “curate” and that would be a full-time job.

      1. Alicia, with the growing collaboration and opportunities to learn and share, I think we are developing a system where we “curate” each other. I suspect this is going to be more fruitful and more productive than any kind of central clearing house.

  7. All of us make errors, and a good genealogists like you not only accept but welcome having errors pointed out- because it is an opportunity to correct them and make the corrections publicly available. And then there are those who go the next step, and use the incident to help other people see how the error happened, and show what to look for to catch them before they happen. The truly excellent genealogist. That kind of generosity is what makes genealogy a valid discipline of people working together to assemble a body of credible work. In my time doing genealogy, I have witnessed a major shift even among “cut and pasters”, who are developing a sense that citations are essential and each “fact” checked and double-checked. Sometimes it takes a while for some folks to “get it”, but as long as there are people like you, it will happen. I’m grateful for all the fine people who graciously share their mistakes so people like me can learn. Thank you.

      1. Annie Stratton describes my thoughts very well. The best investigators are eager to find and correct their own mistakes. Thank you very much for this example.

  8. I started to study my genealogy in 1983. As to be expected, my skills and standards have improved over time. Acknowledging this led me to change my focus about 2 years ago. I went from searching for unknown ancestors to re-examining every one in my family tree with the intention of expanding and improving my sources for all my ‘facts’. This not only led me to making several corrections, but also to deleting some individuals who simply cannot be reasonably substantiated. It also led me to add many new ancestors on lines I had not examined for quite some time. My work at re-examing my existing tree continues….forever I expect.

  9. Good Morning Alicia once more. It is great to get the help we all need now and again so that we can find a long lost relative or delete an ancestor that JUST DOESN’T FIT with the other folks whom we know for sure are related to us. Marjorie has hit the nail on the head when she re-examins her tree on a day to day basis. Best wishes to all of our friends who do so much for us. I began some of my research in 1954 when my Grandmother Archibald and Mom Hila Morris Hilton gave me a lot of their research that they began in the 1920s including Letters which are dated. Thanks to Mel Hilton Lucy and many other friends and relatives who combined my old data with theirs to give me a basis for my research currently. Much of my huge data base comes from so many friends with whom I am in touch currently. NEHGS folks thank you for keeping us on the straight and narrow path. Sincere Best Wishes to all, Paul Morris Hilton.

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