Be skeptical: use alternate sources

9 years ago

“Trust but verify” is the motto of the experienced genealogist. All of us who have been researching for some time have had erroneous information come our way whether online, from a fellow researcher, a published genealogy or another method.

It’s tempting to accept an answer that finally breaks down a brick wall but lest you are led down the primrose path always attempt to find sources to verify what you find

I always teach students that they need to be suspicious of material they find online. Digital images of original documents are truly valuable but there are online trees submitted by people, often with no sources given. Can you truly trust them? My warning is that no genealogist should blindly accept data until an effort is made to try to verify it.

I can honestly say that I haven’t found one online tree pertaining to any of my family that didn’t contain errors. I learned the hard way that just because it’s on the Internet or for that matter in a published family genealogy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s correct.

I was reminded of this recently when I found a submitted tree on a popular online site purporting to be that of my great-uncle Fred. Fred has been something of an enigma in that he shows up in the 1880 U.S. Census aged 1 year and then disappears. Since the 1890 Census is missing and there is no sign of Fred by 1900 I had long suspected he died young. No one in our family ever mentioned Fred which added strength to the theory.

But the online submitter said differently. There was a photo of Fred’s burial site, a correct birth year, and links to sources including U.S. Censuses, directories, and marriage records to prove that that Fred was indeed my Fred. Could this be right? So, with my trust but verify motto in mind I decided to check out the listed sources.

Certainly the Census records seemed to prove that the online Fred was born in 1879, the cemetery photo of his tombstone listed the correct birth year and there was a lot of information on his wife and children. When I got to the marriage certificate all on the front page seemed correct but the parents’ information wasn’t there. So, I turned the page, digitally speaking, and there I found that this Fred wasn’t my Fred at all. His father was named Charles, his mother Annie Cookson. My Fred was the son of Wilbert and his mother was Annie Batchelder.

Whoever submitted this online tree had missed the reverse side of the marriage certificate with the disqualifying information. The submitter was eager to prove that the two Freds were one and the same and didn’t push the sources to prove the case conclusively.

I’m not interested in making a case against the researcher but as a warning to all of you who are doing much or all of your genealogical research online. Not everything you find is correct. To avoid spending time and effort following a family line that isn’t yours always be skeptical and search for alternate sources.

Adopt my motto, trust, yes, but always verify.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society. Reader emails are welcome at Her semimonthly column is sponsored by the Aroostook County Genealogical Society which meets the fourth Monday of the month except in July and December at the Caribou Library at 6:30 p.m. Guests are always welcome. FMI contact Edwin “J” Bullard at 492-5501.