The Controversy of Data

Over the years it has always amazed me how deeply folks buy into their own data. Even me. As we do our research we become convinced of our conclusions…Sometimes even as new information becomes available.

My take has always been that genealogy is always at best an inexact science…If you can even consider it a science. The further back you go, the tougher it is to “prove” your suppositions. And when every bit of “proof” you have is secondary, or even tertiary, you are really just making an educated guess.


Over the years I have been involved in several “controversies” of identity. Most of these controversies come about because in your search for ancestors, the first batch of data you come across contains some piece of what later looks like a mistake. Now that we are publishing our research online, these mistakes take on a life of their own and become very hard to eradicate. The permanence of the many message board posts, early database uploads to different genealogy program sites, even early file sharing among relatives have perpetrated false leads.

Caleb Cox - Phillipp Cox

The image above is from the 1870 US Census for Travis County, Texas. To date, it is the only document where Caleb Cox was called Philipp that has come to light. It led to a bit of a controversy over the years because many of us treated it as a source for nameing our ancestor Phillip Caleb. I personally might have been slower to accept the census as accurate if I didn’t have another ancestor who dropped his first name on legal documents and census records over the same time period.

The latest question that has come up in my research is the last name of my Great Great Grandmother. The earliest references to come to light named her a Johnson. Now there is evidence that names her a Thompson. My tree on Ancestry straddles the two my making reference to the conflicting data. This has led to me being questioned for my proof…So far I am staying ion the middle while I weigh the merits of all of the data and continue the search for more. As this grandmother of ours lived out her entire life in the 19th century along the frontiers of civilization, there is a good chance that little more in the way of sources will ever turn up…We will have to wait and see.

Changing Patterns Of Research

Prior to the Internet, your search for data was done mostly in libraries and courthouses. Now, we are becoming dependent on the on-line databases. There are problems with this new reliance…The database indexes are not always correct. Many times when I search the databases for ancestors in places I know they were, I can’t find them…But if I spend the time to actually go over the images the data is extracted from I will find the family I am looking for. Often, it becomes evident that the person or persons who did the indexing were misreading the handwriting in the document. You, with your greater knowledge of the family you are searhing for, recognize the names even though they may be hard to read.

Even common family stories can mislead…How many of you have the oral tradition that a few generations back you had Native American ancestors? My family has this tradition…My dad was under the impression that his father or his grandfather had been born in Oklahoma. None of the evidence to date support either of these family stories. I still can’t help but wonder if they might not be based on some truth just further back than the evidence has led so far.

As I continue to do genealogical research, I find myself being slower and slower to accept the initial assumptions…Even when backed up by meticulous research. I am now more aware of the life our data can take on once it’s published to the internet.

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