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Suspicion Meters

Genealogy Essays:

Recording Adoptions
How do you draw adopted children in a family tree? (2011)

Those Elusive Edes
9 lessons learned about finding people in the census. (2009)

The Joys of Inveterate Button Pushing (2004)

Who's Your Daddy?
Genealogy versus family history. (2004)

Suspicion Meters
Your program doesn't have one, but you do. (2004)

Estimating Dates (2002)

A cautionary tale (2002)

Count Your Blessings
1988 and now (2002)

The Grand Chase
How my individuals connect (2002)

What makes a family? (2001)

A genalogical detective story (2000)

Eben J. Cady
Musing about a tombstone (2000)

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(This article appeared in RootsWeb Review, 7 July 2004.)

In a perfect world, every good genealogy program would come with an automatic suspicion meter. Unfortunately, our world isn't perfect, so you have to use the manual model. It's right there between your ears.

The family legend, buoyed by a similarity in names, has you related to a Civil War general, a President, an outlaw? Your meter's needle should quiver. Great-Great-Uncle Wilbur married a Cherokee Princess? Quiver again. Your immigrant ancestor was from a family with huge estates and noble blood but was exiled for poaching the King's game? The needle should bend itself around the peg. (After all, why would anyone want to boil the Royal Scrabble set?

A good general knowledge of history helps keep your meter tuned. When I was eating my lunch out of a tin box with Roy Rogers on the lid, I'd sometimes tell my classmates that my first great-grandfather was named Robert Lee Pack. Many of them asked if he'd fought in the Civil War, just like his namesake. No; he was born in 1863. His brother, Jefferson Davis Pack, was born in 1861. Robert E. Lee may have had a comrade in arms from the Mexican War who thought enough of him to name a son after him, but chances are someone named "Robert Lee Smith", "Abraham Lincoln Johnson", Ulysses Grant Miller" or "Jefferson Davis Jablonski" was born in 1861 or later.

In the same vein, but a different war, there is some questionable genealogy on the Internet tracing my Pack line back to a George Washington Pack born in 1755. The father of the USA made his name after 1776.

Note that I'm talking about suspicions, not facts. Lee is the 24th most common surname in the United States, according to the U.S. Census bureau, and "Robert" is the third-most popular given name for males. Someone probably named their child "Robert Lee" after their father-in-law in 1823. I just sneaked a peak at RootsWeb's World Connect. It lets you leave the surname and/or given name blank. I picked an appropriate birth year and set the range to +/- 20 years to get a 40- year range of data. There were 1,191 entries for Robert Lees born 1820-1860 and 23,954 in the period 1860-1900. I'd bet some of those 1,191 were legitimate, but others were not. Someone saw a middle initial "L" and assumed it was "Lee".

Migration patterns help. If you see someone born in Massachusetts before 1620, they are either an Indian or a mistake. The original 13 colonies expanded, slowly. Ohio's first European settlement was Marietta, founded in 1788. Nevertheless, I found 11,687 entries in WorldConnect for people born in Ohio 1745-1785.

There were people with European roots born in California as early as 1776. They had Hispanic surnames. Most of the boys grew up to be superb horsemen. If you see an Anglo born in the Golden State before 1849, be suspicious. (Suspicious, not convinced it is an error. There was a trickle of non-Hispanic immigrants starting about 1820.)

Some of the mistakes you see are people not thinking; Malinda McCorckle is born in Pennsylvania or Virginia in 1780, her parents move west to Ohio when she is 12, she marries Eltweed Pomeroy in 1798; she is recorded as being "of" Marietta when she weds, and someone thinks she was born there. Other mistakes come from people filling in the birth place when they mean the death place; it happens, especially early in the morning, before the first cup of coffee, when the kids are asleep and you can have the Internet all to yourself.

So -- be careful, be suspicious, and remember your history.

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This page updated: June 21, 2014