It's On The Internet So It Must Be True
I've written on this topic before so stop me if you've heard this one: beware of online family tree sites and “make-it-fit” genealogy.
Let me take off my Italian cook hat and put on my genealogical researcher shoes for a minute. And let me tell you about those shoes. I started climbing my family tree back around 1970. It was a tough climb because the few elder relatives I had left didn't want to talk about “that old stuff.” I had to dig and root and ferret in courthouses and churches and cemeteries and libraries and archives and historical society records for years just to get a decent start. There was, thank goodness, no Internet or Ancestry.com back in those days. I'll explain that sentiment in a second.
By the time the US Bicentennial came along in 1976, I had enough experience in working the records that I became a genealogical records searcher for several counties in the state in which I lived. Clerks in these counties were being flooded with requests from people trying to prove they were related to George Washington or Benjamin Franklin or somebody famous they could brag about. The perpetually overworked and understaffed staff in these jurisdictions started farming out these requests to qualified local researchers who would, for a fee, handle all the legwork. Enter me. Thus I got a lot of experience dealing not only with my own family tree but with a whole forest of trees from all over the place.
Fast forward about forty years and I finally published a comprehensive book on my family. It was rich in detail, replete with copies of old records and lots of sometimes faded photographs. It definitively traced the path of my ancestors from their mid-nineteenth-century European emigration up to and including my own generation. And it sold tens of copies, not counting the ones I donated to the local library and the historical society. Oh well, I didn't do it to become rich and famous.
Part of why I did do it was an attempt to counter the enormous influence of all the new cyber-sources that cropped up as the Internet grew and developed. Ancestry.com was and is at the top of the food chain in this regard, but there were and are lots of other sites like those sponsored by the LDS church, for example. Don't get me wrong: these are tremendous resources – if you know how to do basic research before you start. That's why Ancestry's horrible “you don't have to know what you're looking for; just start looking” campaign a few years ago just ground my gears. Of course you have to know what you're looking for! Otherwise how will you know when you've found it? That's like saying you don't have to be an electrician in order to wire your house; just play with the wires until something lights up. There's bound to be a YouTube video somewhere that shows you how to do it, right? Uffa! (That's Italian for sheeeeesh!)
Gentle readers, please listen to me when I tell you you can't, can't, CAN'T just plunder around on the Internet for a few minutes and come up with a fully-developed and completely accurate version of your family tree based solely on the extremely questionable work of somebody else who probably did the same damn thing. “Ooooh, I saw it on the Internet so it must be true.” Aaaaaarrrrrggggghhhhh! (I think that translates the same in Italian or English.)
Here's an example: my sister and co-researcher called me this morning with the latest “update” from Ancestry. It was a link to somebody who was supposed to be related through our maternal grandmother. One problem: we already knew this bird. He had all this great and apparently thorough research going on. Names and dates and pictures of people we knew we were related to, all right. But he had our grandmother living nine years longer than she actually did and had her buried a thousand miles from where she is actually buried. Had her name right, had her married to the right guy and all, but when it came to the end, he was all wrong. And the worst part of it was, you couldn't tell him anything because he was convinced he was right. He had found all the records on the Internet and they all matched up. Never mind that my sister visited the woman in question for decades and was present at her funeral. Or that I lived with her the last fifteen years of her life and was one of six who carried her to her grave in Osgood, Indiana in 1980. What did we know? His grandmother, of apparently the same or similar name, died in 1989 and was buried in Woonsocket, Rhode Island and he was at her funeral and because he had found everything he needed to know about her online, he was right and we were wrong. And thus shall it ever be.
We've got another nut hanging on our family tree who took up genealogy as sort of a retirement hobby a few years ago and he is the undisputed king of the Internet. I doubt that he has ever been in a library or the records room of a courthouse, but he has all the answers and he found them all right there at his fingertips in his living room or wherever he does his “research.” In fact, he is so proficient that he way outclassed me. It took me nearly fifty years to trace my family back to the mid-eighteenth century. He has been on the job for about five years and he already has the family linked to seventh-century Saxon royalty! Wow! Who'd a thunk that the farmer who left England in 1844 to become a farmer in America had royal blood in his veins? And again, he saw it on the Internet so there's no use in questioning his methods or his results. We're just waiting to see the link to Adam and Eve.
And then there's the well-intended cousin who is about half right about half the time. Another offspring of the Internet, he has in recent years at least made a pilgrimage or two to the old hometown to back up his findings. The problem is that he interprets what he finds in the wrong way and then posts it as gospel to the Internet for others to do the same. No, Cuz, that wasn't my sister standing in that photo with Grandpa. That was our uncle's step-daughter of the same name. How do I know? Well, A) she was my sister and B) she had severe cerebral palsy and never stood up a day in her brief life. A minor detail, right? A detail that I'm sure wasn't on the Internet. So, no that wasn't her, but thanks for telling the whole gullible online world that it was. I'm sure I'll be seeing that misidentified photo now on at least a dozen other “family tree” sites.
See, that's the real issue. I wrote a freakin' two hundred-page book jam packed with precise detailed information that took me nearly a half-century to dig out of dusty old record repositories spread out over several states. And a small handful of people read it. My plugged in and connected cousins mainline their misinformation directly to the World Wide Web and millions of “family researchers” dutifully scribble it into their permanent records and claim it as their own.
Please. Don't. DO. This. Don't accept anything you read online at face value. Not even the most experienced and competent researcher is infallible. I'm working on a second edition of the book I published ten years ago because I've found new information and, yes, discovered a couple of errors in my own previous work. But the sheer volume of absolute dreck masquerading online as reliable data is nothing short of astounding. I have seen with my own eyes examples of children whose birth dates were listed months after the death of their mother. I have seen a man recorded on the Internet as dead and buried on a certain date when I had in my hand his death certificate that showed his passing eight years later. How about the woman who gave birth to her son when she was six years old? Or my uncle whom a reliable Internet resource had married to two different women two years apart? They were both the same woman: one marriage was listed by her first name and the other was by her middle name. And how they happened two years apart I'll never know.
Don't get me wrong. I have used the absolute hell out of online resources since they first became available a couple of decades ago. It was an online source that enabled me to find the name of the ship upon which my paternal immigrant ancestors sailed from England. BUT.....I already know from which port they sailed and what their departure and arrival dates were. And that information I got from plain old grunt work in old family records. I was able to find their street address by accessing England's census online. BUT.....I already knew in what town they were living at the time. The Internet enabled me to detail the settlement of my Italian ancestors in Canada without actually having to go to Canada. BUT.....because I talked extensively to my grandmother when she was alive and available, I knew exactly where in Canada to look. Internet sources and resources have enhanced and improved the quality of my research, but they have never been nor will they ever be the fundamental source of it.
I don't tremble and quake every time Ancestry.com turns over a leaf. I don't get all twitterpated every time I see what appears to be a full-blown genealogy of any branch of my family online unless that genealogy is in absolute lockstep with what I already know to be true. I don't graft a limb, a branch, a twig, or even a leaf onto my family tree until I can verify it through multiple empirical sources. I don't take anybody else's word for anything I can't personally authenticate through at least one other source. No matter how tempting it might be, I don't engage in “close enough” or “make-it-fit” genealogy that piggybacks on somebody else's often questionable work. That's called “responsible research” and it's unfortunately becoming less and less common in the burgeoning “information age” in which we live.
I suppose it's possible my grandmother arose from her grave in Indiana and lived another nine years in Rhode Island. Maybe my totally incapacitated sibling did stand up for a photograph and perhaps I am descended from old Saxon royalty. After all, it's on the Internet so it must be true.
But I'm not counting on it.