Analyze what?

Genealogical articles, such as those published in the Register, very often address a problem or omission from a previously published genealogy. The author explains the problem, describes methods and sources used to address it, reports results and, then, if the answer is not clear cut, presents an argument as to why one conclusion is preferable to another.[1]

Every family has its share of complications that need to be addressed in their genealogy. The most common egregious element of nineteenth-century genealogies, in particular, is the claim of English/royal ancestry. Over time, nearly all of these claims have been critically re-examined in some way, usually published in one of the genealogical periodicals, sometimes in a new version of the book. Did the old book provide traceable proof or was it something the author got from somebody who got it from somebody else? but despite the lack of proof, the claim has been repeated so often that it is now “Gospel”? Has the author of the “newer” book taken any time to track down and corroborate these old claims or is he just passing it all forward?

The best way to learn how it should be done is to regularly take a little time when you are in the library (or look at digital versions online) and read some of the “classics”…

Does the author provide notes and reasons for estimated facts (death between dates of will and probate) or relationships (“probably son of [because…]”)? Does she discuss conflicting sources (Jones says he was born in 1678, but Smith says 1680)? then, has she tried to reconcile the conflict (1680 cannot be the correct date as his mother died in 1679)?

The best way to learn how it should be done is to regularly take a little time when you are in the library (or look at digital versions online) and read some of the “classics” (whether or not they are talking about your own family), such as: Donald Lines Jacobus, Hale, House and Related Families[2]; Walter Goodwin Davis’ series of books on the ancestry of each of his 16 great-great-grandparents, collected in Massachusetts and Maine Families in the Ancestry of Walter Goodwin Davis[3]; Mary Lovering Holman, Stevens-Miller[4]; and Mary Walton Ferris, Dawes-Gates.[5]

Also, try to make a habit of reading all the articles in every new issue of the Register and other genealogical periodicals – again, regardless of whether they concern, or seem like they might concern, your family. You will quickly broaden your horizons, and you will probably find some interesting reading.

Next week, we will talk about “Completeness and Restraint.”


[1] See, for example, Barry E. Hinman, “Untangling the Ancestry of the Two Men Named Abraham Andrews in Waterbury, Connecticut,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 169 [2015]: 13–15.

[2] Donald Lines Jacobus et al., Hale, House and Related Families, Mainly of the Connecticut River Valley (Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1952).

[3] Walter Goodwin Davis, Massachusetts and Maine Families in the Ancestry of Walter Goodwin Davis…, 3 vols. (Baltimore, 1996).

[4] Mary Lovering Holman, Ancestry of Col. John Harrington Stevens & his wife Frances Helen Miller, 2 vols. (Concord, N.H., 1948–52).

[5] Mary Walton Ferris, Dawes-Gates Ancestral Lines, a Memorial Volume…, 2 vols. (Milwaukee, 1931–43).

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. 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.

10 thoughts on “Analyze what?

  1. How accurate is Crozier’s book on coats of arms for American families? I have found more “arms” for families in that book than what I can find in DeBretts or the Almanach de Gotha. On the other hand, Maj Thomas Savage of Boston has the arms of “Rocksavage” ** or perhaps the arms of the Earls of Rivers on his tombstone in the King’s Chapel graveyard and also on his contemporaneous portrait in the MFA. But if you try finding him in DeBrett’s — you won’t. Go figure!

    ** the arms of “Rocksavage” differ from the arms of Savage/Earls of Rivers in that the shield color is gules (red) rather than argent (silver or white). The MFA portrait has a white shield, but Park’s book on the Savage family favors descent from Rocksavage.

    1. Carolyn, I am no expert in Heraldry, but. I do see that Robert Charles Anderson in his sketch on Thomas Savage for the Great Migration, lists his origins as unknown. He mentions Savage’s claim that he was son of William of Taunton, England, but notes that “Savage did not provide documentation for this claim, which does not seem to have been pursued by other research.” In light of this I would not have any confidence in any claims to arms that do not include details and specific proof. NEHGS has a committee on Heraldry that may be useful to you:

  2. Thanks for the references to well-done genealogical works! I will definitely browse those.

    For one of my mystery branches that arrived from England in the colonies in 1650, I was happy to find one of those genealogies that looked at the work that had been done before. I liked his thoughtful analysis of the variables and context of the family’s history.

    Previous 19th-century family histories made grandiose claims about the family’s royal roots, coat of arms, etc., which I pretty much always dismiss as fluff if I don’t find proof. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

  3. I have one of the Puritan/pilgrim gateway ancestors, Olive Welby. I am assuming that the work that been done on this group is pretty dependable – in particular, Douglas Richardson’s Royal Ancestry series. Am I correct in assuming this?

    1. Susan, Doug Richardson’s work is well respected. I am not familiar with the Welby family, and always remind researchers to look at the sources Richardson (or any other writer) used.

  4. I have been doing research on my natural family for 36 years now. I’m always finding something new. I found just last year my grandfather Tolar Gray Rodgers was a twin to Alice Rodgers both born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi May 30th, 1899. I also just found my great grandparents names Parmenter McNeil Rodgers and Francis Amanda Jacobs but still this is through someone else. Nothing is written in stone. I also just found on my grandmother’s side my great great grandmother’s mother Mary Jane Watson married to Joseph Hall of Aberdeen, Oh. Being adopted I’ve been very lucky. One of my line goes back to 1260 in Great Britain. That’s scary but fun to know my family goes back that far.

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