Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
GENEALOGY: Family History Research
It has been forty years since I began researching family history. I was blessed, because my mother had records of our immediate family including the various lines of her cousins and connected lines, going back several generations. As I watched her carefully and laboriously write out the family pages in longhand for people that requested copies, I frequently wondered how much further back into history our family records could go if a person researched the various family lines.
Once it was learned that I was eager to learn more about my family, I was quickly guided to two people who had previously conducted searches and who knew a great deal about my lineage. Cousin Commander Francis W. McIntosh of Corona, California and my mother’s cousin, Esther Jamison of Ottumwa became close companions and correspondents during the next few years. Esther had notes and fragments of knowledge from thirty years of researching my mother’s family lines, while Cousin Mac had pieced together valuable information about my father’s family. I spent hundreds of hours researching in libraries scattered across the United States from New York City to Los Angeles.
Cousin Mac looked at some of the material I had pieced together and commented, “Don’t rely on everything you see in print.” “For every date or name,” he cautioned, “try to get more than one reliable source for verification.” He went on to explain that genealogical sources contain many misprints and false information for several reasons: (1) cemetery records are sometimes incomplete, (2) gravestones and people’s handwriting are often difficult to read and are misleading, (3) “facts” are often obtained from people’s memory after the fact, which might be faulty, and (4) typographic or copying errors are sometimes perpetuated by writers who do not have first-hand knowledge available.
During my research I often found mistakes in genealogy records that I knew for a fact were wrong. In one book I found my grandfather’s name spelled incorrectly, and to support what I am saying, my father’s obituary in Keokuk’s Gate City had his birth date printed wrong!
Fortunately, for many family history buffs, we now have the internet. People can easily examine census and cemetery records, and many genealogy books are available. But some of the same rules apply for researchers of history or genealogy to follow.
It is best to start with yourself and work backward through time as far as you can go. Old Bibles often contain records for several generations, and court houses can be a good place to find reliable information if you know your ancestors' birthplaces. Birth and marriage records often give the parents' names, and valuable data can also be obtained from cemeteries or cemetery records.
However, you will rarely be able to go back more than a few generations through this method. The task becomes harder when you try to piece together family history from printed sources. A researcher must take each name of a family line and trace towards the present. Occasionally he is lucky and finds a connection from the past to the present, but for every time this happens, the researcher will toss out dozens of lines that lead in another direction. This process is time consuming, even with modern resources and equipment.
Occasionally, you will work for years to try to fill a gap, to prove a connection that is claimed. For example, in someone’s records they may have given their parents' names and birthplace. Genealogy records available might not bear this out, thus the actual connection may not exist or may be very difficult to discover.
Correcting errors can also be a tricky business, but one that is necessary to get all the facts in the family material straight. For example, you may discover two distinctly different dates for someone’s marriage, and perhaps the spelling of a name might vary between sources. You must search for other sources to confirm which date and what spelling is correct; but even if you find several accounts that agree, there is no 100% guarantee of accuracy unless you find an eye witness account. Years down the line, you may be lucky enough to stumble onto such verifiable proof that solves the problem. Until then, we do our best to accurately unravel the past.
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick