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August 3, 2012

Is Family Lore Good Enough in Genealogy?

Edward W. asked such a good question about sourcing genealogy information that I wanted to answer it here on Olive Tree Genealogy blog. It's a long email, even with editing, but it raises some important points. Here is Edward's edited email question below:

Several relatives of mine have done extensive work on their branches of our family tree.   I came to recognize the importance of giving sources for information when I was working on extending the trees 10 years or so ago. The elderly relative who did much of the work over the past 40 years had sources, but she has not included them in the computer files.  
I recently purchased an upgrade to Family Tree Maker.  I feel like I need to dig out and cite the sources for the information in the tree.  The new version of FTM has a green leaf next to an entry that has potential links online.  Her link yields seven (!) family trees with a woman of the same name, all of which list her birthdate as 1745, while our tree lists it as 1741.  As her spouse is also listed, it’s clearly the same individual, and the consensus date is 1745.  However, when I look at the source given for the 1745 date in the various trees, the source is “Family Tree Information: Detail: Ancestry Family Trees.”  This is the sort of situation where people are citing each other, and nobody is giving an actual source.
One question that occurs to me is what are considered legitimate sources for information on direct family members (my grandparents, parents, siblings, children and nieces/nephews).  Do I need actual birth certificates and death certificates (or obituaries) to document their particulars, or is word-of-mouth within the family good up to a point?  (I know all the particulars to-date).
Edward, you've encountered a very common problem in genealogy. The first is the issue of folks merrily copying information they find online without verifying that it is correct. To verify, they need sources. And they need sources which clearly indicate where the information was found (a book, a microfilm, an original document, Aunt Harriet, Gramma's recollections, etc). Once a researcher knows what the source for the information was, they can determine if the source is reliable or not.

For example if I find a record of my great grandfather's birth but the source given is "Gramma Smith told me this" I am going to question that source. It's family lore and may or may not be correct.

If however the source provided is a church register or some other reputable source, I'm going to accept the data with one caveat - that I need to find and verify that source personally. Why? Because the researcher noting it may have erred when copying it. I want to see it for myself before adding it to my family tree. And it's always best to go back the original rather than trust a transcribed or extracted version.

Family Lore & Memories

The second question you asked was whether or not family memories were good enough. I'm afraid they are not. They should be used as clues for further research. You may find a source that verifies the family memory. But you are as likely to find a source that indicates that family memory was faulty, or only partially correct.

An example from my own genealogy research is that of my uncle who wrote letters in the 1960s stating, among other things, that his maternal grandmother was born in Elmvale Ontario. Since I knew nothing of that side of the family and there were no older family members to question, this was a great clue. Notice I said "clue"!

My research found that great-grandma Peer was not born in Elmvale which is in Simcoe County, but was born in another county entirely, many miles distant. However my uncle's statement was still important because it turned out that the family moved to a town near Elmvale when great-grandma was a teenager.  So my uncle's statement was a great clue, but was not correct as he gave it.

The Shaky Leaf

Last point - the shaky leaf. You will find genealogists who love the shaky leaf and those who despise it. I personally like it for clues but not as a definite "this must be correct!" result.

Sometimes the shaky leaf leads you to online family trees which the conscientious researcher will use with caution. Sometimes it leads you to gold - an online record that includes images of original ledgers or certificates. Naturally you can trust an image of an original record. As with any source, analyze and evaluate it before accepting it as correct!

To read more about verifying sources and being cautious with online family trees, take a look at

Genealogy Without Sources is Mythology!

I Just Found My Great Great Grandfather Online -- Now What!!???

Oh How Easy it is to be Fooled!

A Grave Mistake - or Even if it's Written in Stone it Could be Wrong

Set in Stone?



Jessica said...

I actually turned off the shaky leaf for other member trees. I will go and search them when I want a clue, but they so often popped up for new trees - often people who had copied from me! Not helpful.

Anonymous said...

I don't have a subscription to Ancestry so I don't have the benefit/ problem of the "shaky leaf"; but I am amazed at how many people will cite my forum queries as fact. The bottom line is if the source is not a primary document, note it and keep searching but DO NOT, DO NOT, DO NOT take the information for fact.

Anonymous said...

Certainly Family Lore alone isn't enough in Genealogy but that doesn't mean it isn't invaluable. As a jumping off point, as a record of a family's oral tradition, as a conversation starter.

Nearly ten years ago I interviewed a cousin about our family. I've subsequently proven more than half her information incorrect. However, without her stories I wouldn't have even been able to start the search. I'll be seeing her again in a few weeks and can't wait to pick her brain again for her recollections so that I can find new avenues of approaching this family.

As for the Family Tree Hints from Ancestry, well, I've gone through quite an evolution on that front. When I first started I grabbed everything anybody else had posted, then I learned better. Then I became to snooty to even consider anyone elses trees. Now, I always review the trees of others. I frequently reach out to folks on Ancestry that have some connection to my tree. What I've learned is that there are plenty of folks out there with great information/pix to share who don't do a good job of constructing their Ancestry tree to a high standard.

My biggest frustration though is when I see my early (read: shoddy) work perpetuated rather than my corrected work.