What is a "tiehacker"?

"Tiehacker" is a term originating in the Ozark hills of southern Missouri. It referred to a class of people from WAY back in the hills that made a living cutting trees into ties for the railroad. I first heard the term from my wife shortly after we married. I had been working outside all day and was dirty and stinky. She had learned it from her father, and thought it just meant "a bum". Never having heard it before, I looked it up. Although I am not really a bum, I thought it was interesting, and I do have a life-long love affair going with the Ozark hills, so ... there you have it!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Common genealogical mistakes. (I am an expert in making them!)

Just like anything else we do in life, we make a lot of mistakes when we first begin. It is part of the learning process. Doing genealogy is no different. Trust me. Been there, many times! The good thing is, the mistakes we make in this particular endeavor don't hurt anyone and are relatively easily fixed. If a carpenter makes a mistake, an entire house might be off-kilter. A cook makes a mistake, and an entire dinner party makes funny faces and gagging sounds. A chemist makes a mistake, and a building blows up. A nuclear scientist makes a mistake, and a whole city blows up. But if a genealogist makes a mistake, well, you tear up a family group sheet and start over. The worst that can happen is that you spend a lot of time chasing down the wrong trail. So, expect to make mistakes, don't beat yourself up over them, learn from them, and move on.

Mistakes in genealogy work generally come from either faulty data, or faulty conclusions drawn from good data. Either way, a little thought and logical thinking will keep you from the worst of them.

Let's look at the first part, faulty data.

The information, or raw data, that we use comes from a myriad of sources. Some of them are great, some are questionable, some are, well, pretty useless.

Sources are generally divided into "primary" and "secondary". A "Primary" source is a document or artifact that was created at or very shortly after the event, by a person directly involved, and hence is probably quite accurate. A "Secondary" source is one that has information drawn from elsewhere, and may or may not be accurate.

Most genealogy mistakes come from failing to recognize the vastly important distinction between the two.

Some examples of primary sources would be original birth and death certificates, baptism certificates, marriage licenses, census records, and so on. Note that word "original". It is important!

Secondary sources might include obituaries, published indexes of all sorts, headstones and grave markers, published histories and genealogies, and so forth.

It is important to note that most primary resources usually contain some information in the "secondary" category, as well. For instance, a death certificate is a good primary source for information about the death of a person: who died, where, when, and usually how. It is a secondary source for such things as date of birth, parentage, marital information, and so on.

Let's take a look at my mother's death certificate:

The information circled in red could be considered "primary", including her name and date and place of death. In blue is secondary information, her date and place of birth, and her parents' names. (My sister was the informant for this document.) As it happens, most of it is correct, except one piece of data which my sister got wrong. Our mother was actually born in East Saint Louis, Illinois, not in Missouri. How do we know? We happen to have a copy of her actual birth certificate with the correct information. If some future genealogist was depending on this death certificate to have correct birth information, they would be sadly mistaken.

Any time you look at a document, question everything you see. I'm not necessarily speaking about metaphysical certainties here, but simple reason and common sense. What are the chances that something is incorrect? Who is providing the information, and how likely are they to be correct or incorrect? Could they be mistaken, or possibly have reason to, well, be a little less than truthful? What are the chances that there are typographical errors, or that sloppy handwriting is being read wrong? 

Census records are a fabulous source of information, but they are also notoriously unreliable. Perhaps the family information was actually provided by a neighbor, if the family wasn't  home, and he/she was misinformed. Could the children "belong" to the father, but not the mother due to a death and remarriage after the birth of the children. Perhaps vanity caused the wife to fib about her age or that of her husband. That sort of thing happened a lot! From 1880 through 1930, the place of birth of the parents of each individual was recorded, as well as that of the individual herself. This is information to be used very cautiously. In several census records, my grandmother stated that her mother had been born in Illinois, but in one census she said her mother was born in South Dakota. I did a double-take  when I saw that. But, later on I learned that her grandfather had moved his family from Illinois to South Dakota (it had been part of the Dakota Territory at the time), when her mother was a small child. My great-grandmother lived most of her childhood in South Dakota, until her father died and her mother moved the family back to Illinois. So, when my grandmother said that her mother had been born in South Dakota, she was wrong, yet there was some truth behind the statement.

Worse are published indexes. Well-meaning folks have been indexing records ever since records have existed. They will go through the files of, say, birth certificates, and make a list of names and dates, sort them alphabetically or by date or some other criteria, and publish the list. The potential for error is great, due to typographical errors, mis-reading the original documents, transposing numbers, all sorts of ways. Indexes are very useful, but only as a tool to find original documents.

Probably the absolute worst type of record that a genealogist can use as a source of "information" is the "genealogy" that someone else has produced. You would not BELIEVE the utter nonsense that I have seen published by self-professed "genealogists"! If you are looking at one of these things, ask, "What sources did they use? How diligent were they in pursuing accuracy?" You have no way of knowing. So you may make use of these things, but only as a tool for looking for the real deal. Even if they do a good job of citing their sources, you still want to verify for yourself by obtaining and analyzing the original material.

Well,again I have gone on for too long. The next in this series will delve into the other source of error, that of faulty reasoning and jumping to unwarranted conclusions.

Until then, 
God bless

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