Lately I received an email questioning the validity of my family tree, based on a belief that a photograph of my paternal great-grandmother Ida Parker was in fact a photo of a woman named Mary, the emailer’s great-grandmother; the evidence for this assertion was having been told (as a child) that the photograph was great-grandmother Mary. Upon seeing the photograph in my family tree the emailer felt compelled to enlighten me. And to claim a new branch of her family – mine!
My great-grandfather took a second wife after Ida’s death, a widow named Mary, but documentary evidence proves that his second marriage was childless, therefore Mary’s descendants (presumably the family of the emailer) are the product of one or both of Mary’s previous marriages. I established my facts some years ago when I came across an immigration document that included my great-grandfather and his children (whose lineage is confirmed by birth and census documents) accompanied by a woman named Mary, of whom I had never heard. The emailer did not accept my document-based evidence. It seems that a childhood memory Trumps (sorry, couldn’t help myself) any amount of documented fact. I queried how the photo came into her possession, and requested a later photograph of Mary to compare with the photograph of Ida and with photos of my mother and aunts (the resemblance between Ida and her grandchildren is striking, we’re talking mirror image here). Both requests went unanswered.
I have ceased email communication on the subject but curiosity led me to investigate this claim to kinship, which led me to other family ‘histories’, many of which appear to be replications of one another. In one afternoon I came across enough unsourced ‘research’ to suggest that even the best-intentioned family historian may be seduced by the possibility of a match to individuals in another family tree:-
individuals with birth and death dates but no supporting documentation for either event
offspring from an ‘unknown’ spouse (an undocumented marriage)
family histories that include an ancestor reported to have died in 1928 but married in 1933, one who married in 1892 but whose birth date is reported as 1890, another whose offspring were born after the death dates reported for both parents
Junk genealogy may be more prevalent than I supposed. I didn’t waste more of my precious data allowance researching such glaring errors and omissions. The lure of a ready-made family tree can overcome the healthy skepticism that ought to apply when considering whether to import unsourced data. I was tempted to import data from a family history that included eight previous generations of Parkers dating back to pre-colonial America (15th Century – how seductive is that!) but restrained the impulse and set about ‘reverse-engineering’ the generations from earliest to most recent, in an effort to trace the line to my great-grandfather. The process was lengthy, exasperating and demoralising considering how much time I had devoted to chasing an unrelated family. On reflection, it was time well spent because I avoided the futility (not to mention the embarrassment) of writing a bogus family history.
I could have saved myself the annoyance of dealing with that email by privatising my website. I chose not to privatise because my extended family is far-flung; publication offered the best way to communicate my findings to as wide a family circle as possible and elicit their input. I’ve lived to regret that decision, but not the time and effort spent in documenting my family history. Nothing replaces good research methodology.
I took down my family website more than a year ago but my data are still accessible online (that email was prompted by notification of a ‘match’). I queried this with the site proprietor and was astounded to learn that every one of my contacts (mostly family) had been solicited for a contribution to the cost of a subscription “to keep the family tree current”. I objected to this marketing ploy but have received neither explanation nor apology.
Publishing unsourced ‘facts’ produces family fiction not authentic family history. It is a disservice not only to the family but to genealogy. Without citations (census and immigration records, birth/death/marriage documents at the very least), wholesale importation of data from one tree to another produces junk genealogy. I think it’s inexcusable. What do you think?