Now you might say to me, Arlene, what does seeing Santa Claus have to do with my genealogy? And I will reply: the evidence of belief is quite different from the evidence of fact. This should be engraved across your genealogy research notebook.
And by now, you know that I never discredit family traditions. Kernels of fact lace through reams of belief and, because it is your tradition, those kernels are connectors for you to the truth of your background.
What does seeing Santa Claus, or believing that he came, and left you at least some of those presents under your tree or behind your chair or on your dining room table, have to do with your genealogy?
We all, too often, research in instant reject mode: Believing we know the answer before we have collected the data, analyzed the evidence, compared what we already have, and resolved discrepancies between what we thought or believed to be true with what the records actually say.
Gotta constantly question your work: what do I believe to be true? Write it down. Chart the relationships you think are correct. Do the math: do the dates align correctly? Remember, a generation is between 20 and 50 years, depending upon where your ancestor falls in birth order. Is there room for another generation? Is my generation too short?
Gotta constantly gather factual information wherever you can. New readings of old records are being published every year. New indexes to previously unindexed work are advertised in genealogy publications or appear in direct mail pieces landing in your mailbox–email or snail mail. Microfilm scannings of original documents are as close as your computer for comparison.
Gotta be willing to consider new information that is in conflict with your believings. At the same time you reflect on these new ideas, you have to beware of being too easily influenced or even tricked by a spelling variation, or a date what is just a bit off, or a migration pattern that swings unexpectedly into a different county.
When I was originally hired to trace a VA-TN lineage, the surname I was given was Colyer/Collier. When I read the original marriage records, the ancestor married an Osborne. I went there to VA and TN. Traipsed through the hills and climbed the mountains to read the cemetery stones. Interviewed local residents. Took pictures of the rotting house stuck on the side of the hill above the flood level of the creek, as if glue had been slathered along the rocks to hold the house on tight. Every record, every clue seemed to support my findings.
Now, I’m not so sure. On the internet, on Ancestry.com, that early tradition of Collier has re-surfaced. So I am on a fact-finding mission through the new indexes, the newly, re-read sources, the work of new genealogists who were too young when the initial research was completed.
Such fact-finding is a very profitable thing to do because one solid fact, supported by this challenging evidence, is worth a hundred beliefs. That is, if you set aside your belief in order to use the facts you find. Have to be decisive and then, firm and determined to see the proof. And to let the proof dictate the pedigree.
This is called inductive reasoning: you examine the records, collect the evidence, and let the evidence dictate the answer.
Most genealogy is compiled using deductive reasoning: you begin with a belief, you check the evidence which supports that belief, and you prove it to be true. The flaw here, is that when your belief appears to be proven, you stop your search. You don’t examine all the candidates. You don’t account for all the discrepancies. And you miss the real ancestor hidden in the evidence awaiting your discovery.
I get very nervous when the tax rolls reveal an extra son not found on the census. Or in the cemetery is a very young woman, with two infant babes buried beside her, who has been ignored because no one knew she was there.
Not acknowledging the essential difference between belief and fact is a big problem in genealogy. And DNA is now here to help prove that another look is needed! One set of male cousins–they knew they were cousins, been attending the reunions every year, sharing Christmas cards since they were in college, named their kids after ancestors they knew belonged to them–only to find that none of them matched close enough to come from the same grandparents.
Now they are just confused! It can be a Big deal.
(These thoughts are based, in part, and adapted from Glazer-Kennedy Inner Circle Special Weekly FAX #0639, written by Dan S. Kennedy.)
I believe in Santa Claus. And every year he brings me something I did not expect nor ask for. And most importantly, something I did not buy for myself! Did I see him? No.
Your favorite genealogy expert, Arlene Eakle
P.S. The Genealogy News Sheet has been focused on evidence these five months and counting–that’s what genealogy is all about–evidence–in case you wondered. Tune in for the last two airings for 2006 and a big bang for 2007!
P.P.S. More than 1200 genealogists requested copies of “Cutting Edge Documentation.” Copies are still being mailed out–so if yours has not arrived, it will. Gotta be evidence in this–just have to find it.