I believe that most people, when they begin to look at their family tree, often do so with one specific person in mind. For example your Aunt Tilly told stories of Uncle Ernie’s time in the service or you remember that your grandmother mentioned you were related to Napoleon and you’d like to find out if it’s true. For me, it was two things: we (my mother & I) were linked to an American Patriot making us eligible for the D.A.R. (http://www.dar.org/) and we were direct descendents of William Penn (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Penn#Family_tree).
Keep in mind, this was 1996; pre Ancestry.com and virtually any other reliable Internet genealogical resource. However, Family Tree Maker, the software package I chose to track the information I gathered, provided a website with links to family trees that others had uploaded to The World Wide Web (I’m fairly certain this was a precursor to RootsWeb, but I could be mistaken). The Patriot was a misty figure completely unknown to me, so I decided to start with the name I had: William Penn. You can imagine my absolute delight when I entered the name ‘William Penn’ and found a multitude of trees! My joy was quickly replaced by complete awe when I realized there were somewhere over a thousand William Penns!! How in the world was I going to locate MINE?
My number one tip: TRUST NO ONE. It may seem funny, but honestly, you really can’t trust anyone. We are all human, and we make mistakes, both knowingly and unknowingly. As an Archivist, it’s my job to gather, organize, describe and make accessible records of enduring value. In one of the Historical Society collections I work with, I found four photographs, identical, three of which had penciled names that were different. Well, hmmm. Which is it? Although the woman who wrote on them may have known for certain, she very clearly wrote three different names. I’m fairly confident this wasn’t done intentionally, but it means that I have to put a question mark next to the label and hope that, at some time in the foggy future, I will have the time to research the face in the photos further.
Circling back to William Penn, I had to weed through both ‘scholarly’ and ‘ordinary’ information in order to locate the REAL William Penn. I quickly realized that many of the trees had simply been copied, multiple times, which got me worried that if there was an error…that’s right! If there was an error, it was being copied over and over, and someone without an eye for detail might not realize the mistake. So, I made a commitment to my research: I would only enter information into my database that either had a primary resource (i.e., a birth/death/marriage certificate) or if the information predated these types of records that the source information had to be something other than some else’s digital family tree. My hope was/is to mitigate the replication of erroneous information, or in layman’s terms: garbage in/garbage out! As it turns out, even one of the main resources that Penn family descendants had used, a well known book had several errors in it. And, through my research, I learned that William Penn had NO American descendants, though there are indeed collateral branches of the family here. I am descended from one Mr. Benjamin Penn…cool!
I have, on several occasions, strayed away from my own ‘rule’ only to find that I have to go back and detach people from my tree because they don’t belong. Trust only primary documentation, document it as a source, and if possible, keep a digital copy handy. As for oral histories, I’ll tackle that topic at some later date, but obviously, I don’t trust them either!
Did I tell you, I’m related to William Penn? ;-)