Monday, November 14, 2011

On County Heritage Books

Over the weekend, someone posted to that Alabama Genealogy Network on Facebook about the Heritage Books that were available for each county. The minute I saw the post, I immediately thought back to my own experiences with such books. I waited awhile to see what people would post. To my surprise, no one was cautioning people about accepting the undocumented contributions without verifying the information through their own research. Finally, I could stand it no more and posted a word of caution to those who seemed to think they may have stumbled onto some sort of resource that was going to solve all their brickwalls. I encouraged them to verify the information because there is a lot of erroneous information that is submitted.

Let me share a couple of examples of such problems. I had a brick wall on one family line. I had researched just about every person within several counties with the same surname in an attempt to resolve that brick wall. I had a promising lead in a county that was a little south of where my family lived, but then there were some things that cropped up as I was researching the family to the south that made me realize that I had some serious negative evidence that this family was not related to mine. I stumbled across a Heritage Book from the county and found a submission that tied that family to mine. I contacted the researcher for her evidence that she had connecting the two families. She sent me what she had, and I realized she had made a jump in her research without fully studying all the evidence. I explained my concerns to the other researcher. DNA has since proven that we could not be related in the manner in which she stated because the two lines have different markers. However, that particular erroneous connection is there in the Heritage Book, and I'm sure there will be others who take it to be the truth simply because it is in print, and they don't take the time to verify the information.

In another case, the wrong first name is attributed to my great great grandmother. I had tons of information stating that her first name was Nancy. The person who submitted the article said that her name was Nora. I have never seen one record of the time that shows her name as Nora. (Most of the records simply use an N. plus her middle name or her middle name alone; however, I do have several that list her first name as Nancy.) I attempted to contact the person at an e-mail address I found online, but I never received a response. To make matters even worse, someone (either her or another person who found the article in the heritage book) purchased a second grave marker to accompany the original marker which listed her only as "& wife." Now we have a marker that permanently identifies her by the wrong first name because someone did not look at all the evidence of what her name was. The person who submitted the article is a very distant cousin who was probably trying to remember some of the childhood stories of the family and remembered the name wrong or confused the name with another person. Most of the remainder of the article did seem to rely mostly on family tradition, so I'm fairly certain she didn't really research much and just wanted to have our ancestor honored. It would have been nice if this person had done an exhaustive search of resources before publishing erroneous information.

I have a third family included in another heritage book. The line is so garbled in the narrative that one is better off completely ignoring that contribution. Even a simple census search for any year will reveal some of the errors in that essay. There are gaps in generations as well in that submission.

Too often these sorts of mistakes are included in the heritage books by someone who means well but really does not perform the reasonable exhaustive search, misinterprets evidence, etc. Do I completely ignore the books? No. I simply use them for clues and hints as I would any secondary source. I have also found that the historical information on various communities in the county is often of better quality than the individual family essays. One still needs to verify that type of information to the best of his ability.

I don't really get excited when I stumble across a heritage book. I recognize it for what it is. I do get excited when I research in original records or when I'm able to build a case using a combination of records. It's a shame that the motivation behind these was to "sell books" rather than to produce well-documented family histories. Maybe one of these days someone will insist that submissions meet genealogical standards. Until then, I'll probably continue to do most of my research before looking at the heritage books.

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