Subtitle: Do as I say, not as I have done.
I well remember the day that I lost about 100 ancestors. It could happen to you.
In my case, early in my genealogy endeavors, I was adding information about “new” ancestors in great haste. Well, they weren’t really new; they had always been my ancestors, but their names were new to me in those days. I’d find a new ancestor, record his or her information, then move on and find the parents. In the early days of my genealogy searches, it was easy to add new ancestors. After all, everyone has thousands of ancestors and, when you are new to the game, the records can be easy to find. This is especially true for French-Canadian genealogy as the Catholic Church did a great job of recording almost every christening and marriage and most funerals, usually including the name of the parents in each record. Those records are easy to find on microfilms and in printed books and, in recent years, in online databases.
As a genealogy newcomer, however, I didn’t know about the need for double and triple-checking for accuracy.
One day I found a record for one of my French-Canadian great-great-grandfathers. There was but one problem: I had already documented him (or someone else) but with different dates of birth, marriage, and death, and with a different wife. I had no choice but to go back and double-check the original records I had previously transcribed.
I’ll skip over the boring details and go directly to the bottom line: I had found and transcribed information about the wrong man! Who knew that two different men, living in the same small town in northern Maine at the same time, would have the same name? It turns out they were not even closely related. I later determined that they were very distant cousins although I doubt if the two men ever knew that. I had found a record stating that my great-grandfather was the son of Joseph Theriault and then, in my haste, I found a man named Joseph Theriault living in the same small town at that time. I ASSUMED that he was the father. Some months later, I found ANOTHER Joseph Theriault living in the same small town.
NOTE #1: The word ASSUMED should never be used in genealogy!
NOTE #2: Theriault is a very common Acadian surname. (The Acadians were the French people living in areas that are now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. Many of their descendants moved to northern Maine to escape the British Expulsion of 1755–1763.) Joseph is undoubtedly the most common first name of all French-Canadians. I don’t know how many babies have been christened with the name Joseph Theriault over the years, but there must have been hundreds. This is roughly the Acadian equivalent of looking for a man named John Smith in English-speaking countries.
Okay, finding that I had erred in my earlier genealogy efforts, I removed the “errant” Joseph Theriault from my database. The problem is that I had already traced the ancestry of the “wrong” Joseph Theriault back another 6 or 8 generations! By removing the erroneous entry, I also removed more than 100 other people from my (assumed) list of ancestors!
That was a very depressing evening as I realized I had spent many, many hours recording the ancestry of people who were not in my family tree. I had to start all over again with this branch of the family, proceeding with a bit more caution this time. I double- and triple-checked everything and am now confident that my new records have a higher degree of accuracy.
Now let me ask you a few questions:
Are you SURE that every record you have transcribed is 100% accurate? How about the information you obtained from an online database or from a distant relative? Are you SURE the other person’s work is 100% accurate?
Have you independently verified every “fact” you have discovered? By “independently,” I mean that you should always find a contemporary record that agrees with the first record you found. Even then, mistakes are easy to make. In my case, there were contemporary records available that were recorded by the priests at each marriage. The problem was that two different priests performed marriages of two different men of the same name in the same church, although on different dates. In this case, both of the original records were equally accurate but referred to different men. I only found the error by comparing their birth dates, their marriage dates, the names of the wives, and the first names of their children.
How many possibly inaccurate records do you have in your database right now?
FIRST MORAL TO THIS STORY: Use caution and common sense when transcribing records you find.
Here is my favorite line that I have read dozens of times in different messages, written by different people: “I went on the [insert name of an online database] web site and found 1,000 new ancestors!”
Really? How do you know they are yours? All of them?
FOOTNOTE: There is a silver lining in this story. After researching the ancestry of the “new” Joseph Theriault a few generations, I found that he was a distant cousin of the wrong man. They shared many ancestors, although obviously not all of them. I was able to “recycle” many of the original records I had previously researched. However, this time I did double-check each record to make sure I didn’t repeat my earlier error.
SECOND MORAL TO THIS STORY: Never throw away any records you have previously transcribed. You might find a new use for them some day!