In the 10 years I’ve been teaching family history classes, there’s always someone on the first day who announces something like, “My family history’s done on my mother’s side. My Aunt Martha wrote it.” Although I’m still amazed by this declaration since no one’s family history is ever “done” it’s nice to know that someone in the family took the time to write a piece of the family history.
Maybe someone has written a family history about your ancestors, too. A “genealogy cousin,” related to you by a common ancestor in the sixth generation whom you don’t even know, might have compiled and published a book about your family. Though such a family history book may not include all descendants down to you or your parents or grandparents, it could help you make a connection to another generation. If a published genealogy exists, it can save you countless hours of research. (It could also create countless hours of research if you discover the genealogy has flaws and wasn’t well re-| searched.)
How can you find out whether someone has published a genealogy that might hold answers about your ancestors, and how do you get your hands on a copy? How should you analyze such research and incorporate it into your own?
Let’s take these questions one step at a time.
10 PLACES TO FIND A PUBLISHED GENEALOGY
Finding a family history book that covers part of your family tree starts with knowing where to look. Here are 10 likely sources to locate a published genealogy about your family if one exists:
The Family History Library
Located in Salt Lake City, the massive Family History Library has more than 70,000 biography and family history volumes. You can search its holdings by several different categories, including by surname. The results will be a list of books that focus specifically on your family of interest as well as books that might contain your surname as an “allied” branch. At <www.familysearch.org>, follow the links to the Family History Library System, then the Catalog, then Surname Search. You can also search the catalog at your local Family History Center.
Public libraries with genealogy and local history departments
Genealogical and Local History Books in Print
What’s in a Book?
What makes a good published genealogy? Here are a few examples of quality family histories you can use to compare with the ones you discover:
The Hatch and Brood of Time: Five Phelps Families in the Atlantic World, 1720-1880 by Peter Haring Judd (Newbury Street Press)
The Langhornes of Langhorne Park by D. Brenton Simons (Newbury Street Press)
Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts, 1742-1998 by Franklin A. Dorman (New England Historic Genealogical Society)
Library of Congress
Directory of family Associations
County and local histories
Commercial Web sites
Family Web pages
Aunt Tilda’s attic
Just because you don’t find a reference to your surname in any of the above sources doesn’t mean that no written family history exists. When Great-aunt Tilda wrote the family history, she might have made a limited number of copies, and the only place the book might be available is in some obscure research repository or in a trunk in Aunt Tilda’s attic. Sometimes the “book” is no more than photocopied pages bound in a notebook and distributed only among family. Make sure you check with all of your relatives to see if they’re aware of any such family history. Typically, however, authors today who go to the trouble of compiling a family history will make it known and available through at least one of the above avenues.
PUTTING IT TO THE TEST
Just because you’ve found a family history book that includes a branch of your family tree doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve hit the genealogy jackpot. Remember the old adage: Just because it’s in print (or online) doesn’t make it true. You need to evaluate whether the published information is reliable and accurate. Look for reviews of the work in respected journals and newsletters, such as National Genealogical Society Quarterly and the Federation of Genealogical Societies’ Forum. Reviews usually appear within a year or two of the book’s publication and give insights into the work’s strengths and weaknesses. (These publications are also indexed in PERSI, so your search there, described above, should also turn up relevant reviews.)
When you have the book in hand, look to see if it is documented that is, did the author cite a source for each fact? Then, check some of the author’s sources yourself. Are you able to find a document based on the footnotes or endnotes? Reputable genealogists always include references so other researchers can acquire the documents themselves. If you have trouble locating a document from a reference, the author probably wasn’t careful about citing sources.
Where they overlap, compare the published genealogy’s facts with those from your own research particularly the information you have that’s most solidly based on primary sources. If the book you’ve found says that a common ancestor was born in 1890, but you have a birth certificate photocopy that clearly says 1905, you might take other “facts” in the book with a grain of salt. How does the published genealogy match what you know from census records? When its information is added to yours, do you get children born before their grandparents or when their parents were several years deceased?
Let’s look at two examples of evaluating published genealogies:
The Battaile battle
In the History of Elbert County, Colorado by Margee Gabehart (Curtis Media, $45), there is a sketch of the Ernst Wedemeyer family on page 203, which reads in part, Just as when using published family histories, you need to evaluate the information in a county history’s biographical sketch for accuracy. I found a published transcript of the Gilpin County, Colo., naturalization records for 1863 to 1910. Sure enough, I found Ernst Wedemeyer, and he became a citizen on Sept. 13, 1870. I’ll check other information in the sketch, and if those facts prove similarly reliable, I’ll accept the sketch as accurate.
Here are some points to keep in mind when evaluating your own examples of published genealogies:
Check the author’s sources. A questionable genealogy perpetuates errors from other published sources or fails to properly cite sources used.
Is there a heavy reliance on other published sources, databases or Web sites? Or did the author do original research, citing historical documents such as wills, deeds, censuses, vital records, etc.?
Try to locate all reviews written about the book. Don’t rely on only one reviewer’s opinion.
Does the published genealogy have conflicting information from what you have learned about your family from other sources?
Do the dates make sense? For example, a woman born in 1870 can’t give birth in 1875. A man born in 1742 won’t be getting married in 1753.
Are there a lot of typographical errors? If the author wasn’t concerned with proofreading, was he or she concerned about the accuracy of the genealogy data?
Remember, finding published genealogies about your family is a starting point, not the end of your research. Even if the book is well-documented and you’re satisfied that the information covered is sound, no family history is comprehensive. Despite what Aunt Martha compiled on your mother’s side, no one’s family history is ever “done.” There are always other lines and surnames to pursue that aren’t covered in one book.
Look for a published genealogy for all of your lines. Just remember to use them cautiously, not as gospel truth, until you analyze and evaluate for yourself whether the information is accurate.
Find It on the Web
Allen County Public Library Catalog
Amazon.com’s Rare and Used books
Cyndi’s List Used Book Store Links
Genealogy Book Search
Family History Library Catalog
Library of Congress Catalog