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October 31, 2018

Don't Trust Everything You Read

Take It With a Genealogy Grain of Salt

I've been sorting through old papers for the past two days. Tucked away in a folder in a filing cabinet in the basement was a magazine dated 1988. It's a  Financial magazine, all about making money, investing wisely and so on. This particular issue featured stories of people who had invested wisely and retired early, or were successfully juggling a career with pursuing a dream.

I was puzzled as to why I'd saved it but figured there had to be an article featuring someone I knew. Sure enough there was. The article was a glowing report of a man, we'll call him Sam. Let me preface this with the fact that I knew, and still know, Sam very well.

The article revealed that Sam had a  high-paying career and was also a rather successful emerging artist (I use the word artist to describe actors, writers, poets, painters, sculptors). Sam worked part-time to support his art and his yearly wages which were given in the article were extremely good.

The article portrayed Sam as a very successful person pursuing his dream while earning a more than decent living. A descendant finding this article 50 or 100 or more years from now would be thrilled to think their ancestor was such an amazing person!

But the author of the article only knew Sam for a brief moment in Sam's life. I've known him for a very long time and also know what has happened to Sam over the past 24 years since the article was written. 

The truth is that Sam has made bad choices in his life. The details are personal so I will simply say that his path in life was a downhill one, not the successful one portrayed in the magazine. He is not a successful artist. He no longer has a high-paying career.

He's a very different person from the person portrayed in the magazine article. Reading it made me realize that as genealogists we should not rely on one article or one obituary to paint the full picture of an ancestor's life. These are all subjective views written at a specific moment in time. Take it with a grain of salt. Or at least recognize that it's only one small piece of a person's entire life.

In genealogy research remember it's okay to be sceptical. It's okay to question every document you find. Think about it. Analyze it. Be critical. Don't trust every document you find and read. You'll be surprised at how many errors there can be in one small document.

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