American Ancestors New England Historic Genealogical Society - Founded 1845 N.E. Historic Genealogical Society Seal View Your Shopping Cart Join NEHGS
Go
  • #62 Royal Descents, Notable Kin, and Printed Sources: On Adding Internet Data to Your Ancestral Charts

    Gary Boyd Roberts

    In one major respect, the Internet is not new. For most of the last century, genealogical hobbyists or “amateurs” (terms I consider somewhat insulting) have had some vehicle for publishing (and thus widely sharing) what they thought was much or part of their ancestry. In the 1890s and afterwards, many researchers joined hereditary societies that to a greater or lesser extent verified or approved lines and published lineage books. Such organizations include the Daughters of the American Revolution (whose 166 volumes of published lineage books cover the descents of members who joined through 1923), the Society of Mayflower Descendants (The Mayflower Index first appeared in 1930), the Society of Colonial Wars (several of whose state chapters have compiled fine lineage books), the Society of the Cincinnati (founded in 1783; publications include a list of qualifying officers and a particularly good lineage book for the Massachusetts state chapter) and the Daughters of American Colonists (in whose fifteen or so lineage books I found Nixon’s mother, Mrs. H.L. Hunt, and Lillian Gish)

    Researchers with alleged royal descents, including numerous “400” society families and various tycoons, submitted their lines to Charles Henry Browning for inclusion in Americans of Royal Descent and other works. Later such volumes, most with a high percentage of royal descents that have now been disproved, include the eight volumes of Magna Charta by John Sparhawk Wurts, the five volumes of d’Angerville’s Living Descents of Blood Royal, and the three volumes of Pedigrees of Some of the Emperor Charlemagne’s Descendants (these last two sets also contain many valid lines, but are either undocumented or underdocumented). Non-royal descents to early colonists appeared in the seven volumes of Colonial Families of the U.S.A. by George Norbury Mackenzie (which again has much valid but undocumented data), the seven volumes of Compendium of American Genealogy edited by Frederick Adams Virkus, and the many volumes of Colonial Families of America and Colonial and Revolutionary Families of America. Much data in these last two sets is both correct and somewhat documented, but false royal descents still abound. Virkus’s Compendium is often cited as the pre-eminent printed work not to be trusted. I find such judgment harsh but various English origins are false, and since the data is largely copied from printed genealogies or derived from family sources or the surmises of genealogists who were not very scholarly, there are many errors regarding colonial generations or the origins of “pioneers.”

    Mormon family group sheets submitted by church members between, I am told, 1943 and 1969 are now housed in the Joseph Smith Building, formerly the Hotel Utah, on the opposite side of Temple Square from the Family History Library. In 1982 I identified 175 problems in the ancestry of various notable Americans and from these family group sheets obtained data that led to answers for forty-five of them. The thousands of family group sheets are filed alphabetically, include the extracting onto such forms of many books (so that the families of daughters of daughters, covered in various genealogies, now appear in one logical sequence), and are usually quite reliable for the descendants in Utah of the followers of Brigham Young. The group sheets are also usually reliable for four or five generations, often more, of the ancestry of these Utah pioneers, and much data on them was copied by Michel Call in the Mormon Pioneer Genealogy Library. The family group sheets should never be used for English origins, and for colonial generations are only as good as the often late nineteenth or early twentieth century genealogies that were copied.

    I much prefer the family group sheets to the Ancestral File, begun in 1969 as in part a reworking of the sheets and for the recording of the ancestry of all contemporary church members. One of my former colleagues estimated that ninety to ninety-five per cent of the English origins (not just royal descents, but any immigrant origins) are false. Many users also have found large numbers of logical inconsistencies (children of twelve-year-old parents, births after the deaths of mothers or when the latter were in their fifties, middle names for seventeenth century English colonists, etc.). Quite useful, however, is the International Genealogical Index, or IGI, which contains millions of extracted records (Massachusetts and Connecticut birth and death data, an estimated one-third of all English parish registers, and most Scandinavian registers), as well as thousands of patron submissions. These last often provide clues and their placement beside extracted data on the same people (the two are no longer distinguished in the online IGI) makes it relatively easy to detect errors. Less-than-obvious Ancestral File errors may take some research to detect.

    Thus there are many precedents for the early Internet function of helping “amateur” genealogists share information. During much of the 1990s the Internet served mostly as a kind of giant query column, somewhat in continuation also of such columns in the Boston Transcript, the Hartford Times, the Connecticut Nutmegger, Yankee magazine, NEXUS, etc. Now, however, with numerous databases on Ancestry.com, Genealogy.com, and many other websites, genealogists often extract much of their known ancestry, especially colonial New England forebears, first from the Internet – before using libraries, courthouses, vital records bureaus, or state archives. On the reference desks at NEHGS I am often called upon to examine such data – or information derived solely from the Mormon Ancestral File.

    Various warnings are required. All of the weaknesses of the previous compendia are repeated – false royal descents and incredible English origins, confused colonial generations, impossible chronology, numerous typographical errors, and, for many of the earlier volumes, assumed coats of arms. Apparently many of the early databases transferred from print onto the Internet (and including the Ancestral File itself, part of FamilySearch.org) were highly flawed. In part for that reason, this website, NewEnglandAncestors.org, has proceeded carefully in its selection of databases, including firstly, the Register, the Great Migration volumes, lists of colonial soldiers edited in the late 1970s, and the Massachusetts town vital records series. In addition to databases that may be derived from flawed books, family group sheets, etc., many genealogists now have their own websites on which they often outline their own ancestor tables, small-scale genealogies (their own first to fourth cousins, say, in certain lines), and various formats of descendancy charts that cover some ancestors and some cousins in an order chosen by the researcher. Such information should be treated basically like genealogical letters – as what someone thinks is their ancestry, and has put together from sources that may be good and bad, but are quite often frequently unidentified. Bible records, cemetery inscriptions, will and deed abstracts, census extracts, and other such “primary” data is only as good as its copyist, and of course books that have been copied and recopied often contain both the errors of the original volume and those added by successive genealogists.

    The end result is often not only a list of clues and lineages to verify, but many of the classic mistakes and long-disproved errors identified by modern scholarship. Royal descents so derived are often laughable, English origins wrong (with fully proved fifteenth- and sixteenth-century forebears of other immigrants omitted), and children or grandchildren long dissociated from various immigrants are reinserted. Such dependence adds much false ancestry (sometimes reams of printouts) to the work of genealogists who have probably carefully compiled data on their immediate forebears but now work from the Internet the way earlier generations of print genealogists used to rely on Browning, Wurts, Virkus, and very poor nineteenth-century genealogies.

    My best advice is to ignore almost all pre-American data on the Internet – unless the Register, TAG, NYGBR, The Genealogist, or original parish records or wills are cited (and the original article should still be consulted). For seventeenth-century generations in New England, check the references in C.A. Torrey’s New England Marriages Prior to 1700, now on CD-ROM. Most “classic” New England genealogies (see my "top twenty" list) can be borrowed through our Circulating Library or purchased from our online book store . A useful check on the oldest of these, largely undocumented, are the Massachusetts vital records database on our website and the New England wills and deeds, mostly on microfilm, on the fourth floor of our research library in Boston, in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, or in the state archives or original county courthouses. To check mid-Atlantic and Southern data, an easy first reference are all of the excerpts from major journals reprinted (as Genealogies of Long Island Families, Genealogies of New Jersey Families, Genealogies of Pennsylvania Families, etc.) in the 1980s and 1990s by Genealogical Publishing Company of Baltimore. For New York Dutch families, check the subject index by Jean D. Worden to The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, plus its update by Harry Macy, and for the first Virginians, check Adventurers of Purse and Person, 3rd ed. (1987) by A.L. Jester and J.F. Dorman. M.B. Colket’s Founders of Early American Families lists many New England and New York immigrants before 1657, plus major genealogies and articles that cover them, and of course New England immigrants 1620-1633 (and part of 1634-35) are authoritatively treated in R.C. Anderson’s The Great Migration Begins series. For Marylanders and Virginians, see the bibliographies by Passano, Stewart, and Stuart Brown, plus Robert Barnes’s British Roots of Maryland Families and Crozier’s older Virginia Heraldica. Many researchers also consult PERSI (the Periodical Source Index), also on CD-ROM.

    I personally would prefer to review the ancestor charts of NEHGS patrons without unconfirmed data from the Internet or Ancestral File. As you might imagine, I spend considerable time deleting false lines and eliminating old mistakes. As a compromise, readers visiting NEHGS or planning a consultation with me might delete only English origins derived from the Internet, the Ancestral File, or any of the weaker compendia listed early in this article. Mistakes in colonial generations are often obvious from chronology, and are sometimes corrected by the very genealogy from which the data was copied – or by articles with which I am familiar or that I helped to edit.

    I look forward, regardless, to examining the ancestor charts of members and visitors, and I hope everyone who uses the Internet continues to share information with each other. Many “lost pioneers” and nineteenth-century immigrants have a sibling or cousin who is in the ancestry of another genealogist. The Internet is much speedier, and potentially more comprehensive, than any past query column or other medium of exchange. Information from the last 200 years can also be corrupted, of course, but overall, given the care with which almost everyone traces their immediate forebears, it is often more reliable than colonial or pre-American data. The Internet is also, of course, a splendid tool for updating your branch of a particular genealogy. An electronic medium should never replace library and primary research, and it may well expose beginning genealogists to many old mistakes. But use the Internet, gather information from cousins online, and then begin your real research with at least hints, if not resolutions, about ancestors who might previously have remained “dead ends.”

New England Historic Genealogical Society
99 - 101 Newbury Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116, USA
888-296-3447

© 2010 - 2014 New England Historic Genealogical Society