Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Where Was “The Garden of Eden”?: And Are All “Sources” Equal? And Are They Sources At All?

Adam FirstMan and Eve FirstWoman
If you spend much time looking at genealogy stuff online, especially in those places where you can find lots and lots of multi-generational family trees submitted by users and subscribers (many of them anonymous), you’ll notice that lots of folks identify other people’s totally unsourced family trees and gedcoms as “sources.” 

In other words, they’re saying that, “I couldn’t be bothered actually checking this stuff out myself.  I’m really busy and this is just a hobby. I’d just as soon take (insert somebody elses’s name here)’s word for it, even if there are no  real source citations to back it up.  And, hey, even if it’s not right, it still adds more stuff to my charts!  It’s good enough for me! I need more names and dates! Of course, if it’s not right, don’t blame me.  I got it from somebody else.

Not surprisingly, as more and more people discover genealogy through the internet, the number of unsourced family trees online seems to exponentially expand.  (Hey! Look at me, look at me!  I’m probably descended from lots of famous people, kings and generals and such! And Indians! And pirates!)

My particular favorites are the family trees for Adam FirstMan and his wife Eve FirstWoman.  I’m especially taken with the ones that identify Adam FirstMan as living in “Eden, Lamoille County, Vermont” or “Eden, Rockingham County, North Carolina” and showing Adam as having been born in 4004 B.C. (which the good programming folks at Ancestry.com translate as "British Columbia").  

And most of ‘em - mirabile dictu - are “sourced.”

Maybe Vermont-to-North Carolina “Adam FirstMan” was a snowbird.

If you’re not a member of a local genealogical society, or are not working with a mentor, or do not go to conferences regularly or are not part of a study group – in other words, if you’re working all by yourself and unless somebody tells you otherwise, you may be inclined to “cite” the place where you found what looked for all the world like a “fact” as a “source”, leading to an explosion of “sources” that are totally unconnected to any kind of verifiable reality.  

This is not to say that you need to do all - or any - of the things mentioned in the beginning of the paragraph above if you want to do good genealogy.  It simply means that it's a whole lot harder to do it by yourself.

Just because Ancestry.com calls it a “source” doesn’t make it so. And finding it in a compiled genealogy book published in 1878 doesn't make it a "source."  Same thing for mug books and county histories. 

And since, in the minds of the under-experienced researchers, all “sources” – especially those in print - are equal, no matter what their origin, lots of weird stuff appears online  - -  sprouting up like so many mushrooms after a summer rain.

Clues become Sources. This is not a good thing.

It’s particularly interesting to Missus Blogger and me, since lots of what’s online about HER family cites Missus Blogger’s grandfather as the “source” – usually citing his unsourced local history newspaper articles – all written under a “nom de plume” way back in the 1930s and 1940s. There are lots of ‘em, and the information gets passed around a lot. Over and over.

We have many of his original manuscripts and notebooks so we know where he got some of his facts and we know what was sourced and what was legend and myth, (d/b/a “oral history”), passed down through the generations.

Problem is, much of what appeared in print was based upon hearsay, conflated evidence and wishful thinking.  It’s not that the real evidence wasn’t there; it’s just that way back then, not everybody bothered to check it out, not even Missus Blogger’s author-historian-grandpa.

Stuff like the census was only available in far-away Washington; land and probate records were in courthouses hundreds of miles away.  Nobody had a lot of money for travel.  Hearsay was good enough and “Uncle Joe sure looked like an Indian. Who’s to say there isn’t Indian blood in the family?

Besides, why stand in the way of a good story? 

Certainly the little French kid who was baptized in Strasbourg in 1757 that she’s descended from was a member of the French nobility.  Everybody said so, so it must be true. Of course he threw his gold-braided hat in the Seine.  Of course he could read and write seven languages, maybe eight. (that’s what the story says…)  

Of course he learned to be a guilder in London before the Revolution, when he was about 16. There is, of course, no doubt that he sailed to far-off America because he really wanted to be a minister-farmer in the far backwoods of Virginia, a three day’s ride from any town with more than 500 people.

That’s what London guilders and French nobility did in those days, right?  Every French nobleman harbors a secret desire to live in 500-Miles-West-of-Nowhere, Virginia, and be the only guilder on the frontier. "I'm just farming here and preaching until the market for gold-leafed stuff improves...", he said...

It sure is a good story, so, as people say, it must be true. “I heard it from “Grandpa” who heard it from his “Uncle Joe” who got it from his “old Aunt Sallie” who learned it from . . . “  - well, anyway, you get the idea.

The older the source, the more believable it seems.  

 In fact, folks often use 19th century printed information as indisputable fact, without bothering to check how it came to be.  Or, if there were typographical errors.  Or mistakes in dates.  Or the usual Victorian-era “tidying up” of embarrassing facts.

That’s why I wrote the post a couple of weeks ago about the need to check out sources and verify them, no matter how much you might want to trust the compiler/narrator/writer.

Memory is faulty.  Handwriting can be hard to decipher. Correcting typeset galley proofs is costly.  Changing things carved in stone (headstones, monuments) is prohibitively expensive.  In the minds of editors, not all newspaper stories with errors merit correction. The expression “good enough for government work” is based on more than a kernel of truth.

Still, if you’re going to put stuff online and use the word “source”, or if you’re going to “cite” something, please take the time to see if it’s credible. And reliable.

Think it through.  Don’t just copy it because somebody else posted it.

Because bad genealogy just doesn’t go away.  In fact, it get copied and passed around.  Over and over again. Pretty soon, lots of people believe it. 

In a future post, I’ll probably address some stuff that’s out there on a pretty “official” looking archival site administered by a well-known university.  There’s a finding aid to manuscripts referencing a prominent historical figure that includes genealogical information.  The information is very wrong and, not surprisingly, the correct info is very easy to find.

Still, the “bad” info is out there, and has been copied by any number of other “researchers” as Gospel-true, and has even made its way to Wikipedia (surprise!).   

But that’s for another day! I don't have time right now...

Today, I wanna see if Adam FirstMan is on Find-A-Grave!

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