Archive for December, 2012

Notable Genealogy Blog Posts, 23 December 2012

The following recent blog posts are those that I consider important or notable. Unlike other similar blog lists, I cannot guarantee that they will all be from the past week. (Some weeks I simply do not have time to read any blogs.) But I will try to write this on a fairly regular basis.

I finally caught up on most of my blog reading. I missed a lot in the past few months. The following posts are those that were still showing up in that “1000+” in Google Reader, presented in no particular order.

Harold Henderson, CG, “Dueling Birth Dates: Is Your Database the Solution or the Problem?,” Midwestern Microhistory blog, posted 22 October 2012 (http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com : accessed 18 December 2012). I have been highly critical of most genealogy database software in this blog and elsewhere. Part of the reason for my criticism is the design of these software programs after tools for recording conclusions, yet the use of these programs as tools for recording conflicting “facts.” This article explores another aspect of this phenomenon.

Harold Henderson, CG, “What Does It Mean to Be ‘Out of Date’?,” Midwestern Microhistory blog, posted 13 December 2012 (http://midwesternmicrohistory.blogspot.com : accessed 18 December 2012). In this post Harold discusses the classic book on American Genealogy by Val Greenwood. Some have argued that Greenwood’s book should be updated to reflect online research. I agree with Harold’s conclusions.

Chris Stevenson, “How Important is an Index?,” Family History Publishing blog, posted 28 November 2012 (http://sgenealogy.com/blog : accessed 18 December 2012). Indexes are arguably the most important thing a genealogical author can include in his book. This article discusses several electronic means for creating your index.

Hari Jones, “The ‘Interpretive Choice’ in Spielberg’s Lincoln,” African American Civil War Memorial blog, posted 23 November 2012 (http://afroamcivilwar.blogspot.com : accessed 19 December 2012). Hari Jones, with the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC, defends the history in the new Lincoln movie. The author is one of the most engaging lecturers I have ever had the pleasure of seeing, and a lot of it stems from his ability to provide specific details and statistics from the Civil War without any notes.

I doubt I really need to recommend these articles. Who would expect anything less than the best from this author? But I will point them out anyway:

Kassie Nelson, “Reflections of a Grad Student,” Cedar Tree Genealogy blog, posted 19 December 2012 (http://cedartree.blog.com : accessed 20 December 2012). I have not directly witnessed the anti-academic attitude that Kassie discusses in this post. Sadly, I do not doubt that it exists, and I hope that we—as a field—can move past it.

Randy Seaver, “Watch Out for Early Dates in Ancestry’s ‘Massachusetts Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988′ Collection,” Genea-Musings blog, posted 13 December 2012 (http://www.geneamusings.com : accessed 20 December 2012). This post discusses a very important aspect of colonial research that still causes a lot of confusion: the Julian vs. Gregorian calendars. In this case, Ancestry.com indexers made the mistake of misunderstanding the dates, which will undoubtedly cause a LOT of erroneous family trees.

Betty Lou Malesky, CG, “Genealogy Today: Take time to produce well-sourced, quality work,” Green Valley News & Sun, posted 10 December 2012 (http://www.gvnews.com/opinion/columnists/genealogy_columnist_betty_malesky/ : accessed 20 December 2012). In the flurry of critical blog posts surrounding Sharon Tate Moody’s recent Tampa Bay Online column, Ms. Malesky defends the position that genealogists should produce accurate work.

Roger Courville, “Five #TED talks every virtual presenter should study,” The Virtual Presenter blog, posted 24 November 2012 (http://thevirtualpresenter.com/ : accessed 18 December 2012). I love TED talks, and I love webinars. With more and more genealogy presenters becoming involved with webinars, this post (and the blog in general) has a lot of lessons that should be learned.

Kevin Levin, “Interpretation of Slavery at Civil War Battlefields,” Civil War Memory blog, posted 4 December 2012 (http://cwmemory.com/ : accessed 22 December 2012). Mr. Levin posts a video from a 2002 University of Richmond panel discussion about historic interpretation at Civil War battlefields. I found it interesting to watch, in part due to my continuing involvement with Monocacy National Battlefield, researching the lives of African Americans enslaved on the former plantation.

U. S. Census Pathfinder now available

I recently completed a free PDF e-book: U. S. Census Pathfinder.

This e-book compiles available information from government and independent websites concerning the U. S. federal census. These resources will allow genealogists and historians to use the federal census to its greatest potential. Among the resources are

  • authorizing acts of Congress;
  • enumeration instructions;
  • original (blank) census forms;
  • information about the original manuscript schedules held at the National Archives in Washington;
  • links and descriptive pamphlets (DPs) of the microfilm editions;
  • links to free and pay sources for digital images;
  • statistical compendia; and
  • explanatory or background articles.

If you use the federal census in your research—and what American researcher doesn’t?—please use this to find the background material you need. You can find the e-book in the “Free Resources” section of my business website, or by following the link above.

Enjoy, and let me know what you think. What have I missed?

Genealogical fallacies in logic

When I was in high school I took a course called “Theory of Knowledge.” I may have enjoyed this course more than any other course I had ever taken up to that point and since (right up until I took Course 4 at the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research).

One of the course units dealt with classical logic, and logical fallacies. I recently found a handout on “Logical Fallacies” that I received in the course. Sadly I cannot produce a “full and accurate” citation to this handout, as I can’t remember details from nearly twenty years ago.

Much of scholarly genealogical research involves the use of logic–deductive and inductive reasoning. Many of the errors that occur in research similarly result in fallacies of logic. I would like to discuss the most common fallacies, as described on this twenty-year-old high school handout, here.

First the definition of a fallacy:

Fallacies are mistakes in reasoning.

A fallacy is an error in reasoning or in an argument. As such they are not rational in the true sense of the word. Most people who commit fallacies do so out of carelessness or haste. Many people who use fallacies are trying to side-step pure reasoning and manipulate others through psychological techniques. There are hundreds of different fallacies, but a few are listed below:

Not only does this definition address fallacies in a simplified way, it also demonstrates that many of the most common genealogical mistakes are directly caused by fallacies. The small selection of fallacies that I have extracted from the handout for this blog post below further demonstrate this connection between genealogical error and poor reasoning:

1. Hasty generalization – Drawing a conclusion (inference) on insufficient evidence.

2. Dicto simpliciter – Not taking genuine exceptions into account.

. . .

5. Circular reasoning – Going around in a circle – using the premise as the conclusion and vice versa – sometimes called “begging the question.”

6. False cause – supposing that two things that are connected by coincidence somehow cause each other.

. . .

8. Ad ignorantium – drawing a conclusion with no evidence one way or the other.

. . .

11. Appeal to authority – trying to get your position accepted because an authority says so when the authority is irrelevant to the issue.

12. Composition – Assuming what is true of the parts is true of the whole and vice – versa – what is true of the whole is true of the parts.

To demonstrate some of these fallacies, let us examine a few scenarios a genealogist might come across:

1. Hasty Generalization. Susan Smith, age 12 years, appears in the 1860 federal census in the household of Richard Smith, age 36 years. The fallacious conclusion would be that Susan Smith is the daughter of Richard Smith, with no further evidence to support it. The 1860 federal census does not provide family relationships, so any conclusion involving family relationships based on this evidence constitutes a fallacious argument.

2. Dicto simpliciter. Alexander Brown, an African American man, appears in the 1870 federal census in Mississippi. A genealogist falling prey to this fallacy would not even look for Alexander in the 1860 federal census, assuming that he was enslaved until the Civil War. The presence of free people of color in Mississippi (though relatively few) constitute “genuine exceptions.” The possibility that Alexander Brown was free in 1860–perhaps in another locality, migrating as a soldier during the War itself–exists.

8. Ad ignorantium. This fallacy is probably the most rampant in genealogy. Suppose family tradition says that your great-grandfather James Lee was related to Robert E. Lee. No connection is found. Or you great-great-grandmother Beatrice Jones was a “full-blooded American Indian.” Again, no evidence suggests this conclusion. Believing what you want to believe despite a lack of evidence is this fallacy in a nutshell.

11. Appeal to authority. A published family history says that William Mulliken came from  West Virginia. The fallacious conclusion would accept this statement as gospel, without further research. Just because it’s in print–even if the author is a well-respected authority–doesn’t mean its true.

We are all guilty of nearly all of these fallacies at one point or another in our career.

Do you have any other examples that immediately come to mind?

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “Genealogical fallacies in logic,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 19 December 2012 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

The most important thing you can ever prove

This blog has spent a lot of time discussing the Genealogical Proof Standard, especially focusing on the use and analysis of multiple documents.

The most important fact that you can ever prove—the basis of all of our research—is the identity of the subject of each record. When you find a marriage record for John Smith, how do you know it is the same John Smith that you are looking for? No matter how unique you believe a name is, you still have to prove that the record actually pertains to the subject of your research.

Several situations make this determination extremely important:

Same name, same place, same time. This is the most common issue of identity. One of my ancestors, Henry Hait, was one of three men named Henry Hait or Henry Hoyt living in Stamford, Connecticut, during his lifetime. Learning about my Henry involved being sure that the Henry Hait in each individual record I found was mine, and not some other one. This dilemma is so rampant that it is even commonly called the “same name” trap.

Same name, same age, same place, different times. I believe that this situation may have resulted in more inaccurate family trees than even the more well-known trap mentioned above. Imagine that a man named George Burgess (fictional name) shows up in records from his birth in 1830 through early adulthood in 1850, all in the context of his immediate family. Then another man named George Burgess born around 1830 shows up in records in the same jurisdiction from his marriage in 1851 through his death in 1900. The two men never show up in the same records at the same time. If you don’t take the time to thoroughly examine all available evidence, it is easy to conclude that all of the records pertain to the same George Burgess. Never mind that the reality is that the younger George Burgess—with the rest of the family—moved out west, the year before the older George Burgess moved into town from the next county over. Regardless of which George Burgess you are researching, falling prey to this trap would create an inaccurate family history.

Same name, different place, different time. I call this the “Shaky Leaf” problem. No serious genealogist should ever fall for this one. Just because a shaky leaf (or any other “intelligent” automatic search feature) tells you that a family tree has someone with the same name, doesn’t mean that you should attach it to the tree. (But if you are reading this blog, you probably already know this.)

How do you establish identity?

Each record should contain both internal and external clues as to the identity of the subject. To prove identity, you can use these clues with clues in other records to form a solid body of evidence.

Internal clues are those attributes about the subject that tell you more about their lives: their age, wife’s name and age, children’s names and ages, occupation, birthplace, religious affiliation, etc.

In a recent case, for example, I was searching for a man named Joseph Adams. I was able to reconstruct his immediate family based on later records of his children in adulthood, but had no information about him. Using the ages of his children, I was able to identify his 1830 federal census record among the records of other men of the same name.

External clues are those attributes about the world around the subject that tell you more about them: their neighbors and neighborhood.

Once I had identified Joseph Adams in the 1830 federal census, I proceeded to look for all of his neighbors in the 1830 city directory. Their addresses pointed me to the precise neighborhood that Joseph lived in. Using a map, this allowed me to identify the correct Joseph in that same city directory, which provided his street address and occupation. This then allowed me to locate the correct Joseph in earlier and later city directories. These facts about Joseph’s life begin to form a portrait of the man that will help in resolving identity issues in other records.

Another case study that I am currently revising for possible future publication in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly involves the second problem described above. Without giving away too much detail, I can describe the problem here.

  • A man (“TB2″) lived in Baltimore County by 1783 and died there in 1836. Federal census records prior to his death estimate a date of birth between 1740 and 1750.
  • Another man (“TB1″) lived in Baltimore County by the 1740s, and recorded the births of his children in one of the three parishes that covered then-Baltimore County—including a son named “TB2″ born in 1747.

The full case study not only disproves that TB2 was the son of TB1, but uses other attributes of TB2’s life to identify TB2’s parents and grandparents. No direct evidence connects TB2 to his other family members. It is only by using the internal and external clues in all of the records of both TB1 and TB2 that the true relationships are revealed.

If you would like to cite this post:

Michael Hait, CG, “The most important thing you can ever prove,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 18 December 2012 (http://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]

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