Documentation, is it really valid?

+2 votes
197 views

Much, too much, is made of documentation. I am tempted to encapsulate documentation with “ “

 I just received an email from another family researcher, I deign to use the word genealogist, for a genealogist is a well trained, and paid for, professional. I and others who create profiles and research their families are naught more than family historians.

To call themselves Genealogists is overly generous and stretching the truth. Especially when Genealogists are strenuous about documentation.

And therein lies the problem - DOCUMENTATION

 There were no such things, except in isolated instances, as birth certificates and death certificates until the 30th Century, and marriage licenses, with central registries did not exist until the the 19th Century, and then only  in some counties, or states.

 The problems associated with inheritance and distribution of estates, should one die intestate, required some form of proof of kinship.

In England and Europe, marriages were performed by a church and duly recorded in church or parish registries. Same with Baptisms, and the dates of Baptisms are all too often taken as dates of birth, when in fact the birth occurred earlier, even a year earlier.

In the colonies, especially in Virginia. A license to marry could be bought, but it was very expensive, so most resorted to the issuance of banns, the record of which may or may not have survived the ravages of war, flood, fire, time and disestablishment.

 And in the decade leading up to the revolution, in Virginia and the Carolina’s and Georgia, there was a proselytizing by Baptists and Methodists, and slowly the Church of England, the Anglican church fell into disfavor. Especially after the Treaty of Paris in 1783, when all things English became anathema and the Anglican church changed it’s name to Episcopal.

Many marriages were conducted by these new churches that sprang up here and there, to last for a decade or less, then fall into disuse as the members packed up their wagons, hitched their oxen and migrated to newly opened territories.

Look as you will, those church’s have disappeared and along with them any records of Baptism, marriage or death, and their graveyards as well.

Fortunate indeed are those who have ancestors who were buried in a graveyard that hasn’t been plowed under,or turned into a highway or runway or a housing development or mall., and whose family was sufficiently well to do, to leave a permanent gravestone, instead of the usual wooden plaque or cross, which soon distintegrated.

 What passes for documentation is nothing but a sub rosa conspiracy, a willingness to accept bits and pieces of info gleaned from any extant document, such as a will.

 Made more perplexing because in some regions, given names were ubiquitous within a family, 1st, 2nd, 3rd cousins.

In the days of primogeniture, which was replaced in Virginia in 1789, but died a slow death. The property of a man who died intestate,  went to his eldest son.

 To ensure that everyone knew who the eldest son was, a man would name his eldest son after himself. No question of seniority then, as there were no birth certificates to wave around.

This followed the English Custom

 After the revolution, the southern states adopted”The Old Jones” tradition. Googlehttps://www.genealogy.com/articles/research/35_donna.html

Again this wreaks havoc, in some regions where many relatives of the same family resided.  Too many John’s, Williams, even Peters, to figure out which is which.

 My great grandfather and his brother both named a son John Wesley after the outlaw John Wesley Harding, and they were born about the same time. Try to fathom which John Wesley Farrar was mentioned in a deed or even a census.

 Thoughts

in The Tree House by Anonymous Farrar G2G6 Mach 1 (14.9k points)

Well my first thought is that in my part of the world we haven’t reached the 30th century yet and we do have birth and death certificates and a lot of other valuable documentation which can be used as evidence smiley

 I don’t understand what you are suggesting that we do if we follow your advice and ignore documentation. Would you prefer that we all give up on genealogy?

That is why we, family historians, genealogists, whatevers, insist on documentation.  You are correct in that much of our information is not proof, but it is still valuable.  That is why it is important to not just collect names and try to fit in the pieces.  Every family has it's own naming customs.  It is equally important to learn about how our ancestors lived and about their communities.  Some people did not live near the church and would drag all their kids at once to be baptized.  So they may not actually be triplets.

If we provide sources, that allows other researchers to know what we based our connections on and allow them to make up their own mind after reading our sources.  I, too, have families that named their children the exact same names.  Luckily, I am here and know my father's birthdate and that of his first cousin to straighten that out for future generations.  My father and his first cousin (the brother of the one with the same name) even had the exact same birthday!

There will always be ancestors that we cannot find a paper trail for, and I am sorry if you have a lot of those.
There's a lot more documentation around than you seem to think. That thing about the eldest son isn't true either. It wasn't a firm rule - usually the first son would be named after a close male relative, but both of the grandfathers were pretty common choices as well, the paternal moreso than the maternal, but if the mother's father was particularly distinguished or he helped the couple out a lot, he might get the first naming. Leonard Buckner (1593-1656) https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Buckner-1356 started with his wife's father Anthony before himself and his father. Incidentally, the 10 sources I have in this profile are just a fraction of what I have on him. He appears in upwards of 20 primary sources, and I'm sure I don't have anything close to all of them.

5 Answers

+4 votes
Well yes, many valid points there, but like Lynda, I don't really get what you are suggesting we should do.    I suspect that most of us, when we first became interested in this hobby, didn't have a clue as to how to pursue it effectively and find out where we came from.  Now we have learned some things from others about what works, and how we can best build a foundation and leave some useful info for our descendants.  Some of the documentation is valid, some isn't, and we do the best we can with what we can find.

It appears that you have been here for quite a while.  May I ask why you're here and whether you feel as if you're accomplishing anything useful?  That's not intended as a hostile question -- as I said, I think your points are valid, but what are we to do about them?
by Dennis Barton G2G6 Pilot (427k points)
+5 votes
I'm also not sure what you are driving at, but there is no one piece of evidence that can identify an individual. Yes, most of us are mere family historians in your terms. Professional genealogists still look at us as genealogists, just not certified. In any case, the more pieces of evidence (documentation) available, the more likely you can prove who someone was. You don't need birth certificates or death certificates. There are lots of pieces of information that can help.

Also, the training that professional genealogists go through is available to anyone who want to avail themselves of it. You don't have to commit to certification. There are university programs, the National Genealogical Society has an online program, there are a number of annual institutes (Institute for Genealogical and Historical Studies in Athens, Georgia, Genealogical Research Institute in Pittsburgh and Salt Lake Institute for Genealogy are the main ones). Other organizations also teach people to be better researchers. The lowly family historian can be as good as a professional with a little help. Even without help, encouraging them to find as much out about an individual as possible is helpful.

Again, no one piece of documentation, even in the 21st Century solves the whole puzzle. In most cases we need 2, 3, 4 or more. To uniquely identify my great grandfather took no less than 10 separate documents and that isn't very many generations ago and recording births, marriages and deaths were required. It may be difficult at times, but that is half the fun.
by Doug McCallum G2G6 Pilot (424k points)

The dictionary definition of a genealogist is A person who traces or studies lines of descent, which seems to fit very well with what everyone on Wikitree is doing. I see no reason to insist on the term Family historian.

No, not a mere family historiansmiley I actually prefer to call myself a family historian ( link to  academic journal of the Family and Commmunity History Society )  I seek to place individuals and families within their social and historical context.  Wiki-tree with it's biography section enables us to include far more than genealogical links from one generation to the next. And just as for genealogy, primary sources are fundamental to historical research whether it is of the nation, a village or an individual ; without them there can be no history. 

We are genealogists. Most of us aren’t professionals but we are genealogists. Some are family historians as well. I don’t really see much difference. I was responding to the original question/statement. We do genealogy and each of us us somewhere between a rank beginner and a professional in skill level. That is just the way of the world  

Finding every piece of evidence needed so document a life is the same for a genealogis or a historian. Documentation of that evidence is crucial. There is a reason that Elizabeth Shown Mills calls her book Evidence Explained. Sometimes it takes more than jyst the evidence and a genealogical proof statement or argument is needed to guide people through the evidence. 

+2 votes
'This followed the English Custom' - which English custom would that be, then?  Naming patterns usually meant that the first son was named after the father's father, first daughter named after the mother's mother, and so on.
by Ros Haywood G2G Astronaut (1.2m points)
Then there are the non-English customs. French Canadian where most of the sons were Joseph and most of the daughters Mary and you need to find the middle names to sort them out. Many German families named all the sons Johann. Complicates things but doesn't make it impossible to sort out eventually.
Read on. You obviusly did not read my whole discourse.

The English custom under primogeniture was to name the oldest son after the father, lacking birth certificates, naming the oldest son after the father was the only way to insure no question of inheritance right should the father die intestate.

The "Old Jones" tradition, started, in America, after the revolution when all things English became anathema, and primogeniture inheritance laws and traditions were replaced.

Then again if you had read my discourse all the way through, you would have noticed this. I am only repeating myself.

Er, actually, you're not repeating yourself.  Your post says:

This followed the English Custom

 After the revolution, the southern states adopted”The Old Jones” tradition. Googlehttps://www.genealogy.com/articles/research/35_donna.html

You may think you said all that, but actually it looks as though you got cut off mid-sentence, since you said "This followed the English Custom" and you didn't even finish the sentence with a full stop.  I *did* read your whole discourse.

+2 votes
a great Genealogist would document and source every thing so Others can find where you found it.  if not you will have to re- look things over when you are looking for new people and things.
by S Sagers G2G6 Mach 2 (21.7k points)
Not the issue. The issue is what passes for documentation, since what we consider documentation was mostly non existent, and what passes for documentation is surmise, deductive reasoning from the scant available documents available.

I don't think you read my discourse.
What do you define documentation to be? Documentation to me (and most genealogists) is anything that documents/identifies a piece of evidence. No one document identifies anyone. You need as many pieces of evidence as you can find and then document those pieces. The evidence must then be taken as a whole and conclusions reached.
+1 vote

Getting back to the question of documentation. The primary source records may or may not exist but there are lots of additional types of records that provide evidence for the existence of our ancestors. Land records can show a lot and can provide evidence for families. On the sale of land, the woman may be asked separately from her husband if she agrees to the sale. This sometimes identifies a wife. If a will was written and you are luck, it will name the wife and all the children. Of course, the wife might only be referred to as his wife. Town records, one of my favorite, sometimes list families.I do a lot of Vermont research and the town books will sometimes have information on new families. The entries will list where they were from, when they got married and the names and birthdates of everyone in the family. This is 18th century. 

Even in the South with the burned counties, evidence of the existence of our ancestors is possible. Elizabeth Shown Mills was a master at ferreting out such information. Read anything by her and you will learn something new. Read NGS Quarterly articles. Lots of information on people from all over and some are close to how to types of articles in that they explain the evidence. 

Similar things are possible in Europe.I just haven't done much research outside the USA yet.

None of this is beyond the abilities of a non-professional genealogist to learn or do.

by Doug McCallum G2G6 Pilot (424k points)
I discussed all of this in my discourse.

The point is that which we call documentation is actually deduction and surmise. yes there deeds and wills, but I discussed the problem with interpreting deeds, wills, probates.

I've been at this, off and on, since 1962 visiting court houses, when I could, availing myself of library genealogical sections, where they existed. (And I don't have the ego problem that requires me to self style myself as a genealogist, regardless of Merriam Webster)

Then came the internet, with access to courthouse and federal documents. What a boon, but in the end disappointing to some degree, because we find that births and deaths were not recorded, save in some family bible that ended up in the hands of some family who knew not the original family.

Search Deeds, and in an area in which family members were named for family members, you encountered two, three, John or Williams in the same area.

It is not cut and dried, it is not a science, it is an art, we do the best that we can . However if real documentation, as opposed to deductive reasoning and best guess, were used there would be very few family trees.

Referencing some ambiguous 18th Century will or deed, as proof of the existence of this or that John is not documentation, as there was probably more than one such John at the time.

We do what we can but genealogical research is full of errors, unintended or not.

There is a full proof scientific way to prove ancestry, and that is via DNA, but that is problematical.  YDNA is very helpful, but one needs males, and one needs to test more than STR"s, a full testing of YDNA SNP's, such as FTDNA's BiigY 500 is the best, but expensive.

mtDNA  can be helpful, but it mutates so slowly and women generally change names with marriage, that it is virtual impossible for most to find a family connection in relatively recent times. Most mtDNA matches go back thousands or even ten thousand years. But there are cases like Richard III's.

Then there is autosomal DNA, while helpful up to 5th cousin, it is also problematic with segements falling out or of varying lengths,  and in general after 5th cousin, not very helpful.

I do realize that there are those that believe that they can triangulate, paint or whatever to prise out relationships even more distant than 5th cousin.

Sorry, but you are confusing documentation with proof. Two entirely different concepts. Sources/documentation/etc. identify pieces of evidence of the life of a person. They do not constitute proof. Those pieces of evidence need to be assembled and analyzed and a proof derived. Sometimes that proof is assumed but not always. In complicated cases, the genealogical proof can be quite involved. 

A good treatise on genealogical proof was written by Tom Jones in Mastering Genealogical Proof which is a companion to his Mastering Genealogical Documentation. Others have written on the topic as well.

Jennifer, Is your issue with lack of documentation perhaps country specific?

As well as using the documentation which is now avalaible online I also spend two days a week at my local archives ploughing through documentation. No lack of it in general terms, although I do have one or two lines where it is a bit thin due to their deliberate efforts to avoid being documented. Most of my research is not dependent on being able to find deeds and wills. I use Civil Registration certificates, Parish Registers, censuses, military records, passenger records, occupational records and more. I would class all of those as documentation.
Yes, country specific, America: from what I've seen includes Canada and USA. I am pretty sure Mexico is a mess because of colonialization.

From your post I presume that you are English. And England does have better records, but from my investigation there is a 1700 brick wall,lots of Parish records before 1700 are not found.

Of course a lot was lost with the dissolution of the monasteries, and catholic churches by Henry VIII, then there was the English Civil war that did more damage.

Despite that I have the wills of my 10th, 11th and 12th great grandfathers(English) as well as an Indenture in which my 9th great grandfather sold his inheritance to his brothers. (He sailed from Virginia to London to take care of his portion of the estate).

But America is a mess, and there is all kinds of interpretation and fabrication, and the reason for that is, unlike England which was relatively stable and generations after generations were born and died in the same farmstead, caracute, hundred or later parish. There were wars and constant movement by families, especially in the agrarian south, were every man needed his own land to provide for his family.

Monoculture produced sterile soil, fecundity reduced available land.

Sterile land, fertile people and you have a migration explosion.
Along the same line. A biologist/anthropologist name of Capelli used a team of grad students and visited some 13 English and Scottish communities in the British isles, they also visited some sites in Germany and Denmark.

They initial drew blood, then swabs to produce a Census of Y DNA in the British Isle. They only tested six DNA Y Segments, presumably the slowest mutators.

The chose communities that had little to none inward migration in the last 1,000 years.

I can't imagine anything like that in the U.S. well maybe 100 - 200 years in some very small rural towns. But if anything defines America it is migration and lack of continuity.

The study is called the Capelli Census of Y Chromosone in the British Isles. I was fortunate enough to snag the results before they were deleted from the interwebs. They sampled Orkney, Shetlands, Penrith, Durness, Sowerby, Isle of Man Uttoxeter, amongst others. I am sure that the main study, sans results are on the interwebs.
Yes, I am English and not everything fizzles out around 1700. I spent the afternoon reading some parish records for 1653. You might also be surprised to learn that family locations in England were not necessarily as stable as you have assumed.
I don't assume that they were that stable, but they were a lot more stable than America. From an  American perspective, in comparison, England was static.

Anyway the Capeilli census of Y Chromosone in the British Isles found at least 13 communities where there was little to no inward migration for 1,000 years... that is stable.

We do have somewhat the same situation in America, where migration is to from rural communities to commercial centers where one finds employment,.

In the late 1950]s to the early 1970's, there was a massive project, the building of the Interstate. Basically this left a lot of communities, isolated, as the Interstates went around or past them. With no tourist income they dried up and became ghost towns.

Fun for future family researchers, if we make it that far/
You said "not everything fizzles out around 1700".

Of course not, I didn't say or suggest that it did, except that Brits with whom I've communicated mentioned a 1700 brick wall, but my own comment indicates that it wasn't universal, after all I have copies of wills dated 1548 and later.

Perhaps it's regional. I do assume that England did not have central birth, death and marriage registries until the 20th Century, and prior to that such information is to be found in Parish registries, or church records, unless there was a disestablishment of said church and the records disappeared.

I am curious about one thing. There does not seem to be any census, as in the United States, earlier than the 1800. The earliest I can find is the 1841 census for England and Wales.

Of course William conducted a census for taxation purposes we know as Domesday, and Royalty conducted surveys of nobility and landed gentry for tax and parliament purposes.

And of course there were the Visitations by the King's Herald.

But not census in the manner of the United states, conducted every 10 years with expanding requirements.

The Census of 1790 to 1840 are disappointing because they only name heads of house and how many of what ages and sex are in the household.

The census of 1800 and 1810 are missing, went up in smoke when you Brits burned Washington DC. Census of 1890 was lost in a flood or fire.
England's first census was in 1801 and has been done every 10 years except for 1941 (hard to do in the middle of a war).
There were some statistical censuses taken in earlier years but not retained. Our first full available census with names of all household members was 1841.
Only the 1890 census was destroyed. The 1800 and 1810 censuses still exist for 13 states. Similar percentage for 1810. About half of it survived and is searchable.

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