9 Family History Traps to Avoid

9 Family History Traps to Avoid

Keep your family story from veering off course -- watch out for these nine pitfalls when researching or writing about your roots.

There were no starlings in Mississippi in 1874, but I didn’t know that when I wrote a narrative history of my Ring ancestors. That year, their country store burned down and the insurance company, insisting the cause was arson, refused to pay the claims. So the Rings sued. I took pains to compose a vivid description of the trial in Vicksburg for my book Only a Few Bones (Direct Descent).

I had pages of information from the legal packet in the Warren County courthouse. I visited the building where the proceedings took place. From the Vicksburg Daily Times, I learned it rained off and on during the trial. “Attorneys, litigants and witnesses exit the courtroom, descend the long iron staircase, and step out onto the portico,” I wrote. “Lighting a cigar or pipe, or tucking a plug of tobacco inside the lower lip, the men watch the starlings poking in the rain-saturated lawn.”

Shortly after the book came out, I received an e-mail from an ornithologist. Starlings were introduced into the United States from England in 1890, she wrote. The first recorded sighting of a starling in Mississippi is in the late 1890s.

Starlings may seem like a small detail, but that’s just one example of an inaccuracy that can creep into historical narratives. Genealogists who are researching their roots or writing a family story want to discover the real contexts in which their ancestors’ experiences happened. But our inherent biases, problems with evaluating sources and other issues can make gleaning the truth more difficult than it sounds. When you’re using historical sources to learn about your ancestors — or writing a narrative others might read — watch out for these nine pitfalls that can send you down the wrong genealogical path.

1. Anachronisms

An anachronism is something that’s chronologically out of place, such as starlings in Mississippi in 1874. But there was another anachronism in my book no one caught. My description of the Ring & Co. store was based on sworn affidavits detailing the building construction, the configuration of the rooms, and the function and contents of each room. I was perplexed that no account mentioned a cash register. Surely, the store had to have one. I gave it one: “A set of scales and a cash register, both brass, glisten on one of the counters.”

Wrong. The book had been in print for five years before I learned that the cash register was invented in 1883 — a decade after the fire. Re-examining my sources, I noticed that they refer repeatedly to the store’s “books and papers.” Suddenly the meaning hit me. Most transactions at Ring & Co. didn’t involve cash. The business was conducted on credit, and storekeepers kept customer accounts in ledgers.

In retrospect, the error seems obvious. But when you research or write a family history, you’re deciphering, analyzing and organizing thousands of facts. Colleagues who read my drafts missed this anachronism. Fortunately, I could correct the error in a subsequent printing: “A brass scale glistens on one of the counters. Beside it lies the ledger of accounts … ”

2. Out-of-place language

Not all anachronisms are as blatant as my starlings and cash register. It’s easy to let anachronistic language — terms and expressions that didn’t exist at a certain time — creep into written work.

I once read a family history involving Plymouth Colony in 1632. The author describes behavior residents found “beyond the pale.” I was pretty sure the expression didn’t exist in Colonial America, and it jarred me enough that I checked the Oxford English Dictionary. The first known use of the term appears in an English history published in 1657, so Plymouth colonists in 1632 wouldn’t have thought something “beyond the pale.”

A few pages later, I encountered “pipsqueak” — an American word first occurring in print in 1910. Nobody in Plymouth Colony, no matter how puny, could’ve been a pipsqueak.

3. Period lingo

From the 1880 census, you learn that your great-grandmother worked as a “hooker” in North Carolina. If you’re not familiar with the area’s dark-leaf tobacco culture, you might misunderstand her entirely. At harvest time, when the tobacco leaves were picked off the stalks, girls called hookers bunched the leaves together and hooked them onto long poles. The poles were hung in tobacco sheds for the leaves to cure. Very likely, your North Carolina great-grandmother wasn’t the kind of hooker that first crossed your mind.

Families who raised burley tobacco in Kentucky had no hookers. Their daughters were “strippers.” During harvesting, the Burley tobacco stalk was chopped down and hung up to cure. Then the strippers would go into the shed and strip off leaves as they ripened.

The vocabulary of our ancestors represents a world of skills, tools, apparel and customs that no longer exists. It was based on where they lived, when they lived and what they did. But words change meaning and have multiple meanings, so don’t apply today’s meanings to yesteryear’s words. Double-check definitions in dictionaries of Americanisms, genealogical dictionaries, Michael O. Varhola’s Life in Civil War America (Family Tree Books), the Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life series, the Oxford English Dictionary, and glossaries of historical occupations.

4. Presentism

Presentism happens when you view the past through the lens of the present. Consider this statement one genealogist wrote about a 19th-century ancestor: “In light of her husband’s frequent bouts of drunkenness and the periodic beatings he gave her, it is surprising that Ann did not divorce him.”

Actually, it’s not surprising. Though divorce laws varied from state to state, at the time they generally favored husbands, even those like Ann’s. If a woman sued for divorce, the husband kept any property she’d brought to the marriage. He got custody of the children, too. Moreover, it was the divorced woman — not the man — who suffered the shame and disapproval of society. The author does her female ancestor a disservice by judging her according to today’s attitudes and norms.

5. Erroneous chronology

When you read about or describe ancestors’ experiences, make sure you have your timeline straight. Erroneous chronology can distort your family history.

For instance, Giuseppe Guzzo and Gaetano Tommasello were cousins. They left their native Sicily together and arrived in New York April 2, 1898, on board the California. I once wrote a narrative describing the “Ellis Island Experience” of Giuseppe and Gaetano. But I later learned Giuseppe and Gaetano never set foot on Ellis Island. The immigrant receiving station there burned to the ground on the night of June 14-15, 1897, and the new, fireproof brick and limestone facility didn’t open until Dec. 17, 1900. The cousins went through immigrant processing in the old Barge Office at the foot of Manhattan island.

My grandfather Santo Colletta steamed into New York harbor on board the Belvedere Nov. 26, 1919. But he, too, never landed at Ellis Island because the War Department used it for military purposes during 1918 and 1919. New York arrivals were inspected on board their ships or on the docks. Ellis Island returned to civilian use in 1920.

6. Generalization

To learn about your ancestor’s world, read social, local, ethnic, occupational and church histories. But bear in mind that histories, by their very nature, are generalizations. Not every aspect of life in an ancestor’s community pertains to that ancestor in particular.

What histories provide isn’t biographical detail you can simply transcribe into your genealogy notes, but rather clues you can investigate. Use them to make a hypothesis about an ancestor, then test it through your genealogical research.

One striking example is Santo Colletta’s wife, Rosalia, my grandmother. I shudder to think how I might have described her if I hadn’t known her. Rosalia grew up in Sicily, and everybody knows what books say about Italian grandmothers, right? They’re fabulous cooks who spread abundant feasts before their families and declare “Mangia!” (“Eat!”).

But not once did I eat at my grandmother’s table. Rosalia didn’t like to cook — it messed up her kitchen. Nor did she drink wine. Had I not known her, I might have ascribed her stereotypical Sicilian traits that would be totally untrue.

You’ll find various levels of generalization in historical writing. A world history generalizes more broadly than a US history, a US history generalizes more than a state history, and so forth. Published materials about the immediate area where your ancestors lived will be the most useful to you.

7. Inappropriate associations

Another error committed in the name of historical context is pairing events that don’t go together. For example, “Nehemiah Stark was born in a backcountry cabin of Barren County, Ky., on June 28, 1838, the very day 19-year-old Victoria was crowned queen of England.” Though the events may have occurred on the same day, there’s no connection between the coronation of Queen Victoria in England and the birth of Nehemiah Stark in Kentucky.

A well-meaning genealogist I know of had no biographical material on his 18th-century Bavarian ancestors other than their vital statistics. But he wanted to give his readers a sense of the era, so he inserted historical facts such as: “Kaspar Bötsch, son of Peter and Ottilia Bötsch, was born about 1726, probably in Reichenbach, Bavaria. He was a young man of about 16 when his sovereign, Charles Albert, Elector of Bavaria, was elected emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1742.”

The author thought the information about the Elector of Bavaria would help the reader understand the historical setting of Kaspar’s life. Not so. Not only are those facts too remote to mean anything to most readers, but the election of Charles Albert had nothing to do with 16-year-old Kaspar. Kaspar’s daily concerns as a subsistence farmer in a rural community were far removed from successions at the imperial court.

Instead, the author should have related an event in Kaspar’s village that had some bearing on him personally. Or if the election of Charles Albert did in fact affect Kaspar’s life — perhaps he suddenly had to serve in the army of the Holy Roman Empire — the cause-effect relationship should’ve been explained.

8. Unfounded assumptions

You can read history, and you can misread it. It’s easy to find what you expect to find, rather than what’s actually there. “Common knowledge” from truisms, adages, novels and movies can muddy your impressions of the past. When reading about ancestral places, try to purge your mind of all preconceived notions and opinions.

For a long time, my efforts to understand the world of my ancestors in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta during the Reconstruction era were stymied. What I read in history books didn’t correspond to what I found in original sources. I realized at last that my own preconceived notions of life in the Deep South were hindering my comprehension. Generalizations I’d learned over the years, while valid in many parts of the Deep South, turned out to be entirely invalid for my Delta ancestors.

For example, who doesn’t know about the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi after the Civil War? Nevertheless, the Klan never gained a foothold in my ancestors’ counties. Why? Because in the cotton-dominated Delta, the land-owning whites depended on a black labor force. Terrorizing or lynching their workers wasn’t in their best interest.

Similarly, many histories suggest anti-Semitism was virulent in the Deep South. But the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta appears to have been virtually devoid of it. Jews migrated there after the Civil War, along with other ethnic groups, immigrants, Catholics, newly freed slaves, even Chinese. Jews were just another component of the uniquely diverse society that formed.

9. Historical bias

As you read histories, it’s essential to understand the content and to evaluate its reliability. Try to deduce who created the source and why. In other words, read critically. Considering the author’s bias — something inherent in all sources — enables you to better assess the evidence for your family history. In addition, never rely on a single source of information if you can help it. Multiple sources add up to a more balanced view.

One case in point is Noah Parker. He was both a neighbor to my Ring ancestors and the justice of the peace who investigated the fiery destruction of their store. I found a few lines about him spoken by the Ring family attorney, W.D. Brown. In sworn testimony given in 1875, Brown called Parker and an associate of his “bad characters … dangerous to the peace of the country.” He continued: “They were the leaders who, in my judgment, were likely to lead the innocent, inoffensive colored people in the country into a trouble that would have resulted in terrible loss of life.”

But Brown’s statement must be considered in light of his circumstances and the Reconstruction era. Before the Civil War, Brown was one of Issaquena County’s wealthiest slave-owning planters. The war stripped him of his 56 slaves and his advantaged social status. When he spoke these words about Parker, almost every elected official in Issaquena County was a freedman. Noah Parker was a freedman. Brown’s opinion of him likely represented that the county’s former slave owners held of any freedman occupying public office. Taking a single historical reference like Brown’s quote as gospel can be fatally misleading.

From articles in the Vicksburg Daily Times and affidavits in legal packets, I collected other evidence that contradicted Brown. Evidently, the justice of the peace worked conscientiously to discover the truth about the destruction of the Ring & Co. store. He questioned and arrested white and black men, setting both communities against him. Parker stood to gain nothing from diligently exercising his duties. Evaluating Brown’s point of view and finding other sources helped me draw a more objective picture of the man.

Just as the justice sought the truth, I was determined to find the right birds for Mississippi in 1874. I sent an e-mail back to the ornithologist: “What bird would be safe to use?” Her reply: “Robins.” So in the second printing of Only a Few Bones, all of the starlings became robins.

Tip: When describing events in your family history, use qualifiers such as probably, likely, possibly, evidently, apparently, it seems, and evidence indicates when called for. That’ll make it clear when you’re theorizing about what might’ve happened.

Tip: Reading others’ reviews of the history books you’re using can help you evaluate the reliability of those sources and understand the authors’ points of view. Search for the book on Amazon.com, or run a Google search on the title and the word reviews.

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From the July 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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