Fact-checking

The past few weeks, I have received messages from a woman who wanted me to post a photo of one of my great-grandfathers. She was working on her husband’s tree using the Ancestry.com, and had decided her husband was related to my great-grandfather.  After much back and forth discussion, I decided she was mistaken.  She continued to send me messages insisting she was right until I told her as nicely as I could I would not respond anymore whereupon she signed off.

After several years of running up and down blind alleys myself, I have discovered that many people (often retired baby boomers) want to create family trees.  Too often these enthusiasts glom onto false information. Those little green leaves (hints) are merely that…not facts. Ancestry.com does a great job of selling their product by making it look easy, but genelogical research involves digging through old documents. So my first bit of advice is don’t automatically use information that pops up. Check it out.

Ancestry.com has done a great job of providing internet access to important archives like census records, but the individual user must obtain some knowledge of research methods and exercise discrimination. As one of my graduate history professors noted, “You can do much research at home in your bunny slippers, but don’t put a lot of ‘stuff’ in a paper and expect a good grade.”

An example from my work was the discovery of information concerning a great-grandmother named Hinderkein Klamer.  Now you would think that is an unusual, perhaps even unique name, however, I found records for different people with the same first and last name.  The trick was to find the real Hinderkein by cross-checking with other facts.

As a historian and retired Census Bureau demographer, I recognize there are often errors in historical documents. For example, many of my ancestors had non-English names but the government officials recording the information in vital (birth, death, marriage), immigration, or census records, often ‘Anglicized’ the spelling or ommitted other pertinent information. Thus, in census records the aformentioned Hinderkein became Henrietta, her husband Johnnes became John and her daughter Juntje became Jane. I found the actual spelling of their Dutch names in church vital records (United States Dutch Reformed Protestant Christian Church).

My Mom’s cousin Elaine was the genealogist for the Dutch Reformed Church in Grand Rapids MI.  Elaine stayed with me several times when she visited the National Archives in Washington D.C.  She also introduced me to cousin Anke in the Netherlands who helped Elaine and Aunt Audrey do primary research in archives in The Hague (Den Haag). I have paper copies of their records and I have been uploading this and other information to Ancestry.com for sharing with the extended family.

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Dianne, Salem Massachusetts graveyard, 1986

23 thoughts on “Fact-checking

  1. I find family history so fascinating. Luckily, so did the rest of my family. I do have a few family trees and such, from France and Italy. The Austrian/Swiss/German I am less aware of, except that I am related according to my grandfather to the great composer Richard Wagner, via my great grandmother Wagner. That, is one I’d like to find more about the Swiss, but besides the photos from Switzerland, I have not much to go on…wouldn’t want to run amok claiming this and that!

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    • I know some if not all of the children to come will care as much about our ancestors as me. It’s important to remember our family members. BTW. My friend Brother Dunstan is traveling to Hiroshima in May. He’s staying with fellow Benedictines at the Cathedral.

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      • If he’s in Hiroshima, I hope he’ll try the okonomiyaki. It’s delicious and Hiroshima seems to have the best.

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      • Thanks Kay. I will let him know. He and his traveling companion like to take walks and visit sacred places. I recommended he look for Hiroshige’s prints of the Tokaido. I assume one can still make this walk. Kathy and I compared this walk to to the Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

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  2. You are indeed a realistic genealogist and able to weed through the unsubstantiated pap that can inhabit the internet (yes, even ancestry.com). I would trust your findings above most. I always enjoy your posting regarding these ancestral tidbits.

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    • Gee thanks Al. My motives are selfish. I don’t want anyone else’s ancestors, only my own with all their good and bad.

      BTW, a little bird told me you and Patty will visit with Linda C. In England next summer. I am envious. Are you taking a tour?

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  3. I enjoy the research as much or more than the results themselves. It can be tedious work but when you make a discovery, it is so worthwhile. The primary sources are essential but not always easy to access or understand which are part of the challenge. I’ve always enjoyed those kinds of challenges however.

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  4. I was lucky. My family has been genealogically mad since forever. All I had to do up till my mother was open their books or papers and enter the info into Ancestery. From mother on, I had my memory of my generation + children and Grandchildren + now g’grandchildren, and that of my cousins Tom and Jerry. The many husbands confused me a bit, but I even had some of that info. It was tedious but fun.

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    • The only husband I’ve listed is the one that matters most to my descendants. The great grandchildren don’t need to know everything. They will get a surprise when they look at my 1980 census form in 2050, however. I listed the person of opposite sex sharing living quarters (POSSLQ) as a “live-in lover.”

      In our family, we too are genealogy mad. Mom and Dad wrote many interesting things in my baby book. That and never quite fitting in with all those little Southerners got me going long ago.

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  5. There’s a fellow out there who still has my grandmother listed in his family tree along with my father and one of my Dad’s sisters. He has Grandmom’s father wrong however. We all corresponded with him years ago and just gave up. The weird thing is I am pretty certain we are related in some way just can’t find the link.

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    • The woman who contacted me is convinced her husband’s father is the out-of-wedlock son of one of my great aunts’ imaginary brothers.

      As great-Aunt Ruth developed her family tree, I hardly think she would omit one of her own brothers.

      Oh well, what can you do? I am amazed at how many friends working on their family trees have a story like yours or mine about a would-be relative.

      The other thing I know is that people lie to the census taker. You can see a lot of this with regard to race and ethnicity in the past and today.

      The Census Bureau finally gave up and instructed interviewers to stop identifying the race or ethnicity of individuals and let them be whatever they want to be. It’s called self identification.

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