The first few days of my genealogy research, I imported a lot of mistakes into my tree because I naively believed that if someone had taken the time to build something as personal as their family tree, they had also taken the time to fact-check. It only made sense. Right?
I can almost see some of you shaking your head in pity at my trusting nature. And I’m smiling because as much as I’d like to learn from the wisdom of others, the lessons embedded most deeply in my brain are those taught by my own mistakes. And the first time I looked at a record I’d imported (because fact-checking is inherent to my nature, not to mention ingrained from years of historical research) and realized that the mother would have been ten years old at the birth of the son, I about choked on my tea.
How absolutely ludicrous! This sparked a frenzy of going through the profiles I’d imported to see how many were similarly afflicted. Not as many as you might guess, but far more than I was happy with. Some were a matter of dates entered incorrectly and once birth records, marriage records, etc. were imported, things righted themselves and the ancestor got to stay. Others sparked the culling the of entire branches of my tree (some after I’d done a great deal of work further up the branch – lesson well-learned!).
But sometimes those squirrely dates come from a trusted source. Sometimes, they are a clue you need to put a mental pin in, or flag in your notes, but not cull from the tree. Why? Because they will be the clue that explain everything!
Very recently, I’ve been doing some work on what I call my Research Tree. It is not my family tree, but the tree I’m using to research different family branches in search of lost ancestors, particularly the parents of Benjamin Lane (b. 1780 Virginia). A life long genealogist and Lane family researcher had finally made a breakthrough to who the family of Lucy Hart (Benjamin Lane’s 1st wife) was. He had found a probated will that listed Lucy Hart and Benjamin together for the first time. It was thrilling!
It also indicated that the family tree he’d suspected she belonged to for several years was in fact correct. I was working on that tree and the one he had related to it for possible lineage to Benjamin Lane when I came across the squirrely date. A marriage date that was years after the birth of the children. This made no sense of course, but he’d left it in the profile. Why? Because it had come to him from a trusted source.
Now it came to me from what I considered a very trusted source. So, I too left that odd date in my profile and kept working. I found records for an earlier marriage for the ancestor, and the death of the first wife…the year before that oddly dated marriage. It all made sense now. The ancestor had married twice, but when the original genealogist wrote her book, she’d only found the record of the second marriage. Now, we knew there had been two and that the children had been born to the first wife. But it was the second wife mentioned in the will as well. All the anomalies made sense because we didn’t simply toss out the squirrely data because it didn’t fit at first.
I think the study of genealogy is a lot like that. We have to be willing to put a record aside, but not get rid of it. Not ignore what we don’t understand, but hold onto it until we do understand. There is so much we don’t know, or think we know that is wrong.
Verbal history is based in fact, but colored and twisted by perception and even what our ancestors wanted us to know. Our ancestor might have told us there were 5 children in the family, because they didn’t want to tell about the 6th, the oldest – a child born before marriage and not of that union. Or a child might have been claimed by one family, but been born to an unwed sister or aunt.
I have a book, “The Lane Family History”, which takes great pains to gloss over any unpleasantness. While it is written, it is also, in essence verbal history. They mention one ancestor and her husband, a full-blooded Irishman. What they don’t mention is that she had FOUR other husbands before she got to him. In order to find her marriage records, I had to trace back through the other weddings. The writers could have said something as simple as, after being married previously, she wed… Only they didn’t. They represented every marriage as convivial and every home as pleasant.
Verbal history is fascinating, necessary and enlightening, but it is not always accurate.
And squirrely dates may be odd, annoying and even make you wonder if an ancestor belongs in the tree, but before you cull them…make sure that squirrely date doesn’t just mean there’s more to the story than you know right now.
You can visit my family tree at:
You won’t see live people, but there are plenty who have passed on to stalk at your leisure!