Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Don't Follow the Herd

When researching your family history, it's easy to become overly excited when you stumble upon the ultimate gold mine:  a completed branch of your family tree that someone else has already researched... or so you think.

But BEWARE!  So much of "internet genealogy" is nothing more than folklore.  So many people online are eager to post their so-called family trees, but what they neglect to do is actually research the line themselves or provide any documentation whatsoever.  Just because someone else says it's so, doesn't mean that it actually is.

I have stumbled upon this time and time again, and by conducting my own thorough research, have actually debunked lots of family tree "myths" that are currently circulating on the internet.

Case in point:  The Washington Family

The publications that can be found on the Washington family are endless, from small-time family history books to reknowned genealogical publications... and it seems that everyone (and their mother) tries to connect to one specific line of the Washington family, all the way back to one specific immigrant ancestor: Colonel John Washington of Westmoreland County, Virginia.  Colonel John Washington was an ancestor of General George Washington, the first President of the United States, and was a very prominent man in Virginia history.  So, of course, it would be pretty cool to be able to claim him as an ancestor.

I was thrilled at the idea of having this Washington line as part of my family tree, and I kept finding publication after publication that said that my Richard Washington (I had proved my lineage up to this point) was the son of Colonel John Washington.  Hooray! (I thought, but - thankfully - I didn't stop digging there.)

While Colonel John Washington certainly existed and has left an impressive list of descendants, my Richard Washington was actually the son of ANOTHER John Washington, living at the same time in Surry County, Virginia, several counties away.  Two guys with the same name at the same time in about the same place.  This happens all too often but can easily be overlooked if in-depth research isn't conducted.  The key in finding the truth - in this example - was due to the examination of land records in Virginia.  Close observation of these deeds made it apparent that there were two John Washingtons.

But here's the cool thing...  I didn't miss out on being able to claim a famous ancestor, just because I'm not linked directly to Colonel John.  I'm still a Washington.  In all reality, Colonel John Washington and my John Washington of Surry County, Virginia, are believed to be first cousins.  They share the same grandfather and the same Royal Ancestral lineage. 

So, don't follow the herd.  Just because it's easier to go along with the information that is already out there, doesn't make that information accurate.  Do your own digging.  You might stumble upon a fact that's even more exciting than you had anticipated... and, more importantly, you can leave a legacy of quality and reliable research for others family researchers who will follow.  Just remember to cite your sources.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Building Your Genealogy Library

Whether you are just starting to research your family history or are a seasoned professional working in the field of genealogy, one of the most important things you can do to aid yourself in your research is to build your own genealogy reference library.  This is vital because not everything you need to know can be found online.  The following list of books should not be considered complete or all-inclusive in any way, but should be used solely as a guide to help you start building your own collection.

The basic necessities for any genealogy library are:

Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920 by William Thorndale and William Dollarhide
This book is extremely useful, as it tracks the formation of counties over time.  Perhaps the reason you can't find records of your ancestor in one particular county is because it was actually part of another county at one point.

History for Genealogists: Using Chronological Time Lines to Find and Understand Your Ancestors by Judy Jacobson
Placing your ancestor at a specific time and place using these numerous time lines can help you better understand what their world was like, or, in some cases, even help to determine their possible cause of death.  The included time lines not only cover the history of each individual U.S. state, but also include a detailed list of the epidemics in America and worldwide, military battles, migration patterns and the evolution of industrialization and transportation.

Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian by Elizabeth Shown Mills 
This is a must-have reference book for every genealogist, and you don't have to be a professional to own the book.  Including proper source citations in your genealogical research is imperative and is an absolute must for any credible genealogist.  This not only provides a reference that you can refer to at a later point, if necessary, but it also adds validity and credibility to your research.  The book illustrates the many ways to properly cite sources, from books and online census records to tombstones and birth certificates.

Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources by Alice Eichholz, Editor
Think of this book as a genealogy phone book on steroids.  This large hard-bound book is divided into a separate chapter for each U.S. state.  Within each chapter, there are various categories and lists of sources to aid you in your research.  These sources include - but are not limited to - state libraries, state historical societies, state and county-specific periodicals and newspapers, and more.  Each entry contains full contact information (address, phone number and web address, if applicable).  It's a great way to know where to look or who to call when you're seeking that one important piece of documentation.

A To Zax: A Comprehensive Dictionary for Genealogists and Historians by Barbara Jean Evans 
Have you ever read through an old legal document as were perplexed by some of the unusual words?  This dictionary is genealogy-specific, so if you need a detailed definition of a dower right, osthouse or surety, this is your go-to book.

As you continue to expand your personal genealogy reference library, consider adding the following books, as well:

Reading Early American Handwriting by Kip Sperry 
This book gives a visual breakdown of old handwritten alphabets and is particularly useful when trying to transcribe a document from the 1600 or 1700s.

Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records by Kory L. Meyerink, Editor 
This monster of a book is a great reference tool if you need to know what information is out there just waiting to be discovered.

Black's Law Dictionary by Bryan A. Garner, Editor 
Another useful tool to keep on-hand when examining old legal documents.

There are many, many more fabulous genealogy books out there, and - again - in no way should this list be viewed as complete or all-inclusive.  More lists may follow in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.  In the meantime, look for the above books on Amazon, ebay or to start building your genealogy library today!