Pulling it all together

Over the past weeks I have been defining 10 categories to use when assessing the value, or lack thereof, of a genealogy. The question is not “Where do I find a list of the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ genealogies,” but “How do I judge whether a genealogy is good or bad?” For the experiment, I am assigning a maximum of 10 points per category with the idea of coming up with numbers that may allow us to compare thousands of genealogies. This is purely my subjective opinion, of course, and numbers by themselves have little meaning without the reasoning behind them, which is why I have included a good deal of reasoning in the examples below – which means it will take me several posts to complete my report.

The subject is: The Phelps Family of America (suggested by reader Donna Fostviet).[1]

Author(s): Judge Oliver Seymour Phelps and Andrew T. Servin. Judge Phelps was interested exclusively in the Phelps family; Andrew Servin was his son-in-law, who apparently prepared the final version of the book with the assistance of professional genealogist Rollin Hillyer Cooke of Pittsfield, well-known for his work on western Massachusetts families.[2]

Oliver Phelps had the financial means (derived from the Erie Canal) to commission work in the U.S. and England and to publish a lavish, 2-volume, 1865-page genealogy with engraved illustrations. His papers are held by St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. Oliver and Andrew were “gentlemen” genealogists of the nineteenth century with no other credits; the extent of Cooke’s involvement seems to be limited to format and 32 pages of corrections and additions. The best I can do is to give the team a score of 1 for the minimal contribution by Cooke.

Oliver and Andrew were “gentlemen” genealogists of the nineteenth century with no other credits…

Peer review: I did not find a contemporary book review for this work, but in 1982 Myrtle Stevens Hyde questioned the origin of William Phelps in Tewksbury, Gloucestershire, as given in Phelps Family in America, and in 1990 she published proof of his origins in Crewkerne, Somerset.[3] Obviously, this eliminates the entire English ancestral portion of the book. Rating: 0.

Format: The book is arranged in a version of what we now call Record format (referring to the style used in the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record), which is similar to Register format, but which numbers every descendant, not just those who are carried forward, and denotes those who are carried forward with a plus sign “+” before their number. It lacks such technical aids as generational superscripts or ancestral lines and has no tables of contents or illustrations. Typographically it is clear and readable, which cannot be said about many of its contemporaries. I give it a rating of 4.

Continued here.


[1] Oliver Seymour Phelps and A.T. Servin, The Phelps Family of America and their English ancestors, with copies of wills, deeds, letters, and other interesting papers, coats of arms and valuable records, 3 parts in 2 vols. (Pittsfield, Mass., 1899). This book is downloadable from www.archive.org (linked in the AmericanAncestors.org library catalog).

Note that a new index was published by Margaret Phelps Swanson, which is available at the NEHGS library. Also: always look at prefaces and introductions to works. They will often tell you more about the book than the content.

[2] See Rollin H. Cooke collection in NEHGS catalog.

[3] The American Genealogist 58 [1982]: 243–44, 65 [1990]: 161–66.

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.

20 thoughts on “Pulling it all together

  1. I’ve been reading so many old genealogies I feel I can give an opinion on this subject! Most of them are filled with errors. Some are found and the book updated but some updates never make it to the original book. Some of the genealogies are fairy tales. Some are good enough that they can be used as research material.
    Worse than the authors who aren’t careful are the ancestors who leave home and don’t keep in touch with family. There is nothing more disheartening than a name followed by nfi. And that’s if the person is even listed! Or if they weren’t combined with a sibling, the two becoming one.
    I often think one of my ancestors was the inspiration for the witness protection program.

    1. NFI? Assuming that the person may have lived past 1850, then let the fun begin! It is truly awesome how much material we genealogists have at our fingertips these days. I like nothing better than trying to find a person who “went west” or otherwise disappeared. Recently, I was documenting folks in a Vermont cemetery. I ended up trying to track down a person who was covered in a published genealogy with NFI. I found a newspaper article about this rather young man mysteriously disappearing, leaving behind debts. Using a little creativity, I turned him up in a mid-western town in the census, using his mother’s maiden name as his surname. He lived to a ripe old age, apparently without paying off the debts he accumulated in Vermont.

      1. Isn’t that cool? I love doing that too, sometimes chasing people who are far afield from my main family line. If I weren’t so curious, I wouldn’t have near as much fun with genealogy, but it WOULD help me get some of my genealogies written.

  2. Just found Van Deusen Albert Harrison, Van Deursen Family (Frank Allaben Genealogical Company, 1912) (available at Google Books) which takes my family line back to the early 1600s via the Van Dusen/Van Duesen line. Was written by one of the descendants who did include a great appendix but wishing there were more sources within these older genealogies although guess that’s still our job as descendants – verifying the information published in these old books!

    1. Joanne, yes, unfortunately, the job has not been finished. Hopefully, this exercise will help researchers understand that in many cases it is not just a matter of copying out of an old book and thinking you have it “all.”

  3. Alicia, Here’s a dumb question from the tardy old guy in the back of the classroom. (Yes, I know I need a good strong thump on the head more often than not… 🙂

    – And not to defend the Phelps genealogy, but if I were a new Phelps researcher (my kinfolk probaly swam in the Erie canal) Would I completely ignore this work – or couldn’t I use it much like an on-line family tree would be used today – always with a grain of salt – but also like a bad road map, yet one containing kernels of truth? “Even the broken clock…..”

    Leave it to me to interrupt a grown-up conversation here – and I know the old genealogies wax poetical, but often it feels like there just isn’t any other place “to start?” No, I swear I’m not missing your point here!

    Signed, Richard Lyman 🙂 – and my grandpa Alfred the Great

    1. Jeff, keep up. At the end I will summarize that, yes, everything needs to be looked at, but it all needs to be looked at critically. I think that is probably the biggest hurdle everyone needs to understand.

    2. Also don’t ignore local histories. Although often containing inaccuracies, they sometimes provide clues. A single obscure statement “James Little Killed by Indians at the fort” lead me on a search in which I found official military records of his death and also a letter he had written, his probate records etc. The footnote at the bottom of the page identified the author’s source as “Mrs. James Sproul.” I recognized her as the second wife and widow of James Little’s grandson ! The date of his death was unknown to the author, but the clue was helpful. Another history book identified his children as the children of his parents ! Because of ages (James’ parents have gravestones at the fort) I knew and so did Maine Historical Society that the children were actually their grand children, but their father went unidentified ! I will try to clear that up officially.

  4. This is such a great thought experiment. When I was first starting my family history I was surprised that the professional genealogy my great aunt had commissioned was famously faulty (Rev. William Cotton descendants), and deeper study of all the texts on this debate led to the demise of many generations and the lopping of my maternal grandmother’s branch. likewise a seemingly authoritative one-name study of the Slayton family, written as I recall in the late 19th century was very extensive, comprising a book that seemed like original research (“I wrote to every address in the US of every person with the Slayton surname, and after a very good response nearly of all Slaytons have documented histories which lead back to the original immigrant” type of assuredness). Another trap is a one name study of the Alexander Bowe/Bow family which relied heavily on the Barbour Collection, which itself turns out to be a collection of transcriptions from various sources, transcribed again. It would be great to have a numbering system for sources in general – like Vermont Vital statistics which included dated statistics for FORMER residents of Vermont in their transcription, and clearly a dictaphone, from the bizarre spellings. Is it something? Or is it nothing? I haven’t decided and it has stopped my work in my favourite hobby.

    1. Alicia, how I wish I could have you hold my hand. I am so very overwhelmed with my huge genealogy which seems to indicate that most of my lines originate from first Americans in the 17th and 18th centuries. The few that aren’t, have become thorns-in-my-side brick walls such as a 3rd ggf who was an early settler with a land grant in Arkansas with no known parents. I have only referred to two early genealogies that seem to be trustworthy. One is Henry Adams, father of my 8th ggm, Ursula. The other is her husband Stephen Streeter. With such a large genealogy I despair of going beyond my own research to fact check genealogies.

      1. Linda, I can’t help with Arkansas, unfortunately, but fact checking is not as hard as it may seem if taken one fact at a time, and with all of the e-books and on-line digitized material these days, it gets better all the time.

    2. Jane, take three peanut M&Ms and get started again. Think of it this way, if it was already done perfectly, there would be no fun for the rest of us!

  5. I am extremely grateful for these old genealogies with all of their errors. 1-It gives us stuff to do, and 2-Some of the info would have been lost forever had it not made it into a book.

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