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September 11, 2010

You Can Think That if You Want but It's Wrong

Here's a scenario that I suspect will be familiar to most genealogists. You receive an email from a stranger who excitedly writes that she is descended from the same ancestor as you. Your common ancestor was born in the early 1800s.

Your new "cousin" goes on to say that her great aunt Martha always said that Common Ancestor was Irish so she isn't sure why you are saying on your website that he was of Dutch descent. She goes on to add that she is new to genealogy and has been researching for one year but has a "ton" of information from great aunt Martha.

You've been researching this family (including Common Ancestor) for over 30 years. You've carefully scrutinized and assessed various records. You've cited your sources. You've searched in obscure record sets for every scrap of detail no matter how small. And nowhere does any hint of Irish or Ireland come into play.

You don't have an exact town of origin for Common Ancestor but you have miscellaneous records (census, obituaries, death records etc) that indicate the family's ethnicity was Dutch.

Thorny question - how do you convince your new "cousin" that she's wrong. I've encountered this many many times over the past dozen or more years. I've tried explaining the contrary evidence that substantiates my research. I've tried various methods - the long-winded explanation/argument, full of examples and source citations. All I usually get back is "hmm that's not what great-aunt Martha told me"

I've tried the short version - "The family is definitely Dutch in origin as shown on census and land records. Perhaps the notion of them being Irish came into being with the marriage of Common Ancestor's son to Sally O'Brien who was from Ireland"  I've explained that family lore can't always be trusted to be 100% correct. Still no agreement from "new cousin" that my research findings might in any way have merit.

Second thorny question - is it necessary to convince "new cousin"? I've done good research. I stand by my findings. Is it enough to simply present her with those findings and let her draw her own conclusions?

Even if she continues to argue that great aunt Martha TOLD her the family was Irish, ergo they are Irish - is it my responsibility to try to convince her of the correctness of my research and the error of hers?

Perhaps it's enough for me to simply state that the evidence I have found indicates the family was Dutch in origin. Enough said? Maybe I need to back off and let "new cousin" think whatever she wants?

Sometimes I feel like responding the way my 12 year old grandson does when his sister keeps arguing with him over something he knows absolutely is incorrect thinking on her part. His ending comment is  "Well, you can think that if you want but it's wrong"

So now I've come to wonder if it is up to me to convince any other genealogist of the "rightness" of my research. Should I shrug my shoulders and let it go? Or should I continue to attempt to convince a new cousin of the thoroughness of my research?

I'd love to hear thoughts and opinions on this!


The Lurking Genealogist said...

I think one's genealogy should stand on its own merrit. You have been at this for a long time, but at some point you won't be around to defend your research. It will have to stand on its own.

Your grandson is on to something, but you might add the following: "However, if you find any creditable documentation that disproves my conclusions, please let me know."

I don't think it is our responsibility to correct the disbelievers. You made the attempt to correct their view and showed the logic for your reasonings. Some peoples minds won't ever be changed.

Look at how many people out there take others research and claim it as their own and post it on the internet. They believe this is correct and without any further research just post it. When asked about it you find they did no original research on their own. If their page has wrong info, they won't change it and if you ask where they got their information, usually they can't or won't tell you.

I would prefer to spend my time doing constructive research rather than taking the time to try to change the mind of someone, whose mind won't be changed.

The Lurking Genealogist said...

I think one's genealogy should stand on its own merrit. You have been at this for a long time, but at some point you won't be around to defend your research. It will have to stand on its own.

Your grandson is on to something, but you might add the following: "However, if you find any creditable documentation that disproves my conclusions, please let me know."

I don't think it is our responsibility to correct the disbelievers. You made the attempt to correct their view and showed the logic for your reasonings. Some peoples minds won't ever be changed.

Look at how many people out there take others research and claim it as their own and post it on the internet. They believe this is correct and without any further research just post it. When asked about it you find they did no original research on their own. If their page has wrong info, they won't change it and if you ask where they got their information, usually they can't or won't tell you.

I would prefer to spend my time doing constructive research rather than taking the time to try to change the mind of someone, whose mind won't be changed.

Tamura Jones said...

Just answer that both your great uncle Bob and your great Aunt Alice say the family is Spanish ;-)

Kristin said...

I'm of the " you can think that if you want, but it's wrong." school. I'm willing to tell them what I've found and share the documentation and even point out why their information doesn't stand up - once. after that it's up to them to think it through. Or not.

Anonymous said...

The problem with "You can think that if you want but it's wrong" is the fact that this incorrect information will continue to be passed along, and along, and along. Some people will never believe your well documented information since 'Great aunt Martha' was her informant!

When I've had this happen I've noted somewhere in my information that this person (and I name names in my notes) has contacted me and has told me blah blah...then I also note that as far as I can tell this information does not have any basis in the information I've collected...I add my documentation. This way I have my well researched information AND the information given to me noted somewhere.

Down the line...if this information isn't questioned and if I don't have documentation that it is WILL become part of the family story.

So my usual quote is..."You can think that if you want but here's why you're wrong!"

Holly said...

I have been in similar situation. I would say if someone does fairly accurate research and stands by their findings, all they can do is present it. People are going to think what they want for whatever reason. It isn't up to 'you' to change their views, nor should you worry about their inaccuracy, they have been presented with the accurate. Perhaps in time they will rethink. You grandson is on to something!! often kids can speak what we worry isn't politically correct. For me, it probably wouldn't go any further than the... ahem, 'the voice(s) in my head!' ha ha.

GOONKA said...

Let it go. It is their loss for many reasons: time spent in useless research as well as the satisfaction of 'knowing' they found the family.

I recently joined and found quite a lot of people with VERY wrong info in regards to a ggrandmother. Her maiden name was the same as her married name and these people believed that could not be so (never knowing what maiden name she may have been, just 'selected' someone with a surprising bdate that was very similar and lived in the area AND whose husband had the same first name - so proceeded to follow that person, including all the branches out) - I got several messages 'correcting me' and I responded back: no, I have accurate information, including death records, funeral cards and pictures of the family, as well as interviews by her children, I will stick to what I know as fact.

I notice now when the leaf shakes at me, several HAVE changed their 'research' to mine, have snagged my photo's, as well as my personal stories :) others are just .. well, who knows. That is their problem after all. One 'cousin' to my father informed me that he follows XYZ because she is very through in her research so he 'knows' that he has the correct info. I responded: why does it bother you so much if I am the one with the incorrect info than? and btw? XYZ has changed her 'through research' to that of mine. I have never responded to him since and taken my tree private.

Anonymous said...

I have this problem with a cousin on a line I have worked 40 years. They posted the wrong line back from the common ancestor because their mother said another local lady knew. the line is repeated a dozen times on line. I can prove it is wrong. Laid both lines out and showed them the other people were in another end of the state when ours were already dead. Showed them documentation with the proper line that was a primary source. They have never retracted or corrected and it continues to mushroom on line. I have considered blogging the right and wrong with proofs but it is outside the content area of my specific blog - The line is on my web site with a big contact me for documentation. Yet I feel horrible every time I see another grab & run with the other. It is on numerous Anc. trees as well.gondur

Susan Petersen said...

One thing I've learned over the years is that it's nearly impossible to shift another person's perception. Many years ago I was corresponding with a "cousin" whose branch of the family had believed for about 50 years that we were related to President Eisenhower. Online genealogy was its infancy at that time, but it only took me a few minutes to disprove this "fact." I reported back to the cousin, but they had so embraced this family myth for so many decades, there was nothing I could say or do to change their minds.

J.M. said...

I haven't had this problem yet, but I think I would go for the short explanation first, then if they didn't listen I'd give the long explanation, if they still say you are wrong, just shrug your shoulders and let it go.

Patricia A. Rogers said...


I have 'run into' people like this in my research. They are 'uneducated' and do not want to do the research. By talking to a relative they think they have the whole story. I have finally come to the conclusion that if they want to believe misinformation that is their prerogative.

I left a note on the site of an online tree - ancestry - telling all who visited that the data was incorrect. Hopefully that will help inform others of shoddy work.

I told the 'distant relative' the correct line of descent and that is all I can do for them. I did make sure the rest of the family had the proper information and have more or less put aside the uneducated one. Sooner or later their work is shown for just what it is - uneducated, unproven and just plain wrong.

Genealogy takes years of research and continual learning. I will no longer waste valuable time on people who are not willing to make the simple effort of listening. My time is spent better elsewhere and so is yours!

As Ever,


USNchic said...

My thought is that you don't want them to pass their false information on to future generations, such as "Aunt Martha" is doing, so it is best to try to convince them they are wrong if you are certain.

PalmsRV said...

If the newer researcher sticks with it, he/she may figure out the research flaw(s) themselves, though perhaps sooner with a few helpful hints from the seasoned researcher.

When I was a newer researcher, I never could convince an elderly "cousin" that my grandmother, whose birthday was July 4, 1900, could not be the sibling of Child X, who was born in May of 1900. I finally gave up.


KevinW said...

First off, your new cousin should have asked for your sources first thing out of chute. She has to learn to keep an open mind or she will fail.

Second, you should offer your sources, and not think of it as being defensive but rather honoring your ancestors by spreading their truth.

Just my opinion, of course.

Hilary Gadsby said...

The one thing I would want to pass on to anyone be they a cousin or not is that without citing recognised sources preferably at least 2 or more then anyone seroiusly looking at your research will feel that it is just a family story.
Any serious genealogist will always look at ways of proving or disproving what "gt aunt Martha" has told them and never rely on memory alone.

Anonymous said...

I, like you have been doing research for years now. I come from very large families, on both sides. Have just recently found a cousin/s some of who are really helpful, some just take from my tree, which is didsheartning at times. You go to all the genealogy places look through countless books, microfische, and records to get information. Then you see someone has put up info that is way offbeat. Yes I agree with your grandson, as there are relatives out there that don't do all the hard yards, and spend the $'s to get certificates and such. Have got cousin that has done all this and more but I prefer to do my own research if I get stuck maybe just maybe will contact him.

Anonymous said...

I had a researcher tell me once that we were related to "XXY" They went to the area of this ancestor found all of the "RIGHT" documents and told me they would contact me after they got back. I NEVER HEARD FROM THEM AGAIN. I hadn't done alot of research with this family and decided to get to the information later.
Well, later came, I still hadn't heard from this researcher and guess what I have hit numerous BRICK walls because of what they had told me. I believe that I will NEVER hear from them again. I have been able to get just so far in my research on the family and can't seem to get any further. In fact, my research has sent me in a totally different direction.
So give the "cousin" the sources and let them find out themselves what is right or what is wrong. You just can't go by hearsay when you are doing genealogy. It just doesn't work.

Ginger Smith said...

I don't usually worry about this too much because I do have faith that there ARE other good genealogists out there like myself who WILL take the time to verify their sources and will not just believe what old Martha told them. Even the fact that this is propagated on the internet doesn't bother me too much because I won't even look at an online family tree if it doesn't have sources. If they post to message boards I usually just go behind him and post the real information as matter of fact. I don't say anything like "you are wrong." I just give facts and sources without commentary.

What bothers me is when people go out and write and publish BOOKS! One of my "cousins" has written a book and another one even wrote another edition of the first book and I asked him to wait another few weeks until the DNA test results came back and he refused to do so. Luckily the DNA test results corroborated his stories but on other stories he refused to wait for me to look up, find, and review the documentation that no one had bothered to, and still refused to review, even after I told them what to look for and where to find it. It is very difficult to "fix" or refute a book, but maybe this will be changing with the advent of wikis and digital books and least I hope so.

Marlene said...

Need to educate all Newebys that:

1. it is necessary to document sources used. What some relative "says" might not be fact.

2. What some relative or anyone else "says" can be kept in a file and /or noted that the information is only what has been passed down by an individual. This information should then be a starting point at which to do actual research to either prove or
disprove what someone "says" with actual documentation.

Marlene said...

Need to educate newbys :

1. that documented evidence takes precedence over what any Cousin or aunt might have "said".

2 Do their own research. Use what cousin Suzie says(if you do not have documented proofs on the topic) as a point to begin research to locate proofs to document it or disprove it.

Martin said...

One of my standard responses is to ask the person to prove their statements by using standard genealogical sources (of which Aunt Martha is not one).

Also, I think you need to have your work out there, whether on the web or in print. Then others will have to decide whom to believe.

I also believe in using the email blocker a great deal.

Anonymous said...

I can so relate. I have been researching a particular family for roughly 10 years. Have been trying to link up a lady by the name Matilda,and was thrilled when I made contact with descendants.
They believed said persons name was Sarah and I have tried until I am blue in the face that her name was Matilda. I have her birth record, marriage, burial and her listed as the parent on the child's baptism. They insist that it must be a different person cause they always knew her to be Sarah.
So frustrated, I have given up and lost contact as they don't think we are connected...

Jennifer said...

I had a client once who contacted me regarding a brick wall she had, and wanted a consult on next moves. I suggested numerous record sources she had not researched which could potentially be of use. She got very irritated with me, insisting that "her grandmother told her" this, that and other things that meant consulting those records would be "a waste of time."

In my final report to her I told her that I was worried that her assumptions were the cause of her brick wall, more than the lack of records. She's probably still banging her head against a wall of her own making.

I've also had a cousin of my husband who posted a totally laughable tree online, with some huge errors. I did eventually get her to make the changes necessary; she just wanted the names and didn't really care why it was true. Unfortunately, her fictitious tree has been picked up by a few others, which just loads more crap on the poo train called shoddy research.

The Grandmother Here said...

Isn't the internet great? Now we can spread bad information faster and further.

Janice Williams said...

One of my favorite "answers" is: I can explain it to you, but I can't understand it for you.

Nancy said...

Your readers gave some excellent responses to your predicament. I've not been in this situation, but I've been on the opposite side of it.

My father always insisted - absolutely insisted - that we were not Irish. I found another researcher of our line and, sure enough, it goes right back to Ireland in that line. I had to reconsider my thinking at that point, but I could see the research he'd done and knew he was right.

I think I would ask "cousin" if she has found any other documentation to support Aunt Martha's stories and explain how important that aspect of genealogy is.

Maybe you can let us know what happens with "cousin?"

Anonymous said...

Yup, I had contact with a relation who said her common ancestor jumped ship, and was not the Civil War vet that I said he was. When asked, I just pointed out that I had birth records, veteran records, etc.

Similarly, I had a living relative who told me that we were descended from a fellow named Cable. Years later, I found that his name was Caleb. Simple thing, but similar process; I have the records, and the paper trail.

Geolover said...

Lorine, thank you for posing this problem. In general my "last word" when folks are not susceptible to logic is the substance of your headline.

As others have noted, people's beliefs are often not susceptible to evidence to the contrary.

As Nancy just noted, one approach could be to ask the cousin if she asked Aunt Martha why she thought so, and to note that many people believe things that are not true. Misunderstandings can come in many ways (I like the Telephone Game example).

But then there are folks who do not understand the research / evidentiary process at all. One correspondent said her version had to be true because Aunt Harriet -- her source -- did research in the National Archives and had a Bachelor's Degree. Of course the correspondent did not understand that the National Archives did not have the requisite records, and just didn't want to hear about it.

In another twist, a correspondent who stated something really wrong in a mailing list post said he could not be wrong because he had published this and that (unrelated to the topic at hand), had been researching for 30-odd years and was a member of this and that society. After it was noted that anyone can make a mistake, regardless of past achievements, and because he could not argue the point factually, at least he stopped repeating it. Not everyone is able to do this ;)

gensearchdeb said...

I'm a little late coming to this posting but found it interesting. I have had the same type of emails and my response usually has been, "yeah I know that was what I started with but the documents proved that theory wrong." To date it has worked pretty well for me. Most of the new found cousins are ok with the new info....Of course if they're not they can go eat worms! ;)

Shasta Matova said...

I would look at it from my cousin's point of view. First, I would acknowledge all the hard work the cousin has put into researching the genealogy all year (or however long). Don't start with a criticism, because you are knocking down their whole tree, not just one little part of it.

Then tell them that you have conflicting information. Maybe they can contact their great-aunt again. Or they might have other documentation you don't. Or they can note your disagreement, and research it (if they want). They shouldn't have to stand by your research without documentation either. Once you have told them, it is up to them what they do with their information.

I had someone tell me that I had a date on a tombstone wrong. Maybe I did, but the picture was blurry, and I don't remember if I got the date from the photo or if I wrote it down while I was there. I'd rather go back and look at the tombstone again instead of just changing the date just because someone told me to.

Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Shasta you're absolutely correct when you say you won't change something just because someone tells you your data is wrong - that you'd rather check the original yourself.

That's part of my point - if a genealogist has sources (census, church records, death records, etc) that state "A" but your newfound cousin has only Aunt Martha stating "B", then it's not a matter of "he said, she said".

It's a matter of primary or secondary sources versus family lore. Sources always win over lore in my book.

My frustration is with researchers who believe family lore without ever checking the sources you've given them or looking for sources to substantiate the family lore.

Michael F Harris said...

That happens too often. The worst part is when you know you need more information on that ancestor but all they have is contrary stories to what you have. When you ask for a source they say that was the story I remember grandma said when I was a kid that her aunt told her. So 50+ year old story that has no source that for some reason is more accurate than you 10 or more sources.