Monday, September 12, 2011

This is me standing on my soapbox and venting!

I spent last evening looking at the "hints" that Ancestry.com wags in my face. For the uneducated, Ancestry.com constantly searches family trees, and historical documents for information that MIGHT be a match to a person in your tree. When they find one, they place a picture of a leaf on the screen that moves back and forth (get it? a hint is a small leaf on your giant family tree!)

This is one of the biggest ways that new genealogist end up with pages and pages of data that contradicts itself. If you do not closely review the data, and really research the information that is presented , you can be copying erroneous information from one tree to another, and then someone copies yours, and then 5 people copy theirs, and the errors just keep on growing around the web.

I have 2 great examples of this from my work in Ancestry.com tonight.

1.  William P Thompson. Son of a neighbor of the John Brown family in North Elba. William is one of the Thompson boys that agreed to go with John Brown to Harper's Ferry in 1859. William was killed in the raid.  I was alerted to the possibility of new data by the wagging green leaf, and so I followed the link to see what was there. I found a Family Tree with some of the same information I have, plus a wife and a "story." A "story" is basically a note that you attach to your tree.  Here is the "Story"
"William was a strong, bold,rustic looking man with large features, ruddy complexion,very fair hair, bold but kindly blue eyes" wrote Hinton and Martin in John Brown and his Men.   
William served in the Union Army. When he returned he found his wife insane and his children scattered"
 Neat trick. Die in a raid in 1859, yet still serve in the Union Army in the 1860s. And return to a wife. Interesting since William was a bachelor when he joined John Brown's men.  The problem is that now there are many other trees on Ancestry.com that also have this William Thompson married which is erroneous information.

2.  Photo of the Kennedy Farm with two young women on long porch IS NOT from 1859. ( I have been fighting this erroneous photo tag for almost 5 years!)   I am not denying that this is a picture of the Kennedy Farm where John Brown and his men hid in out prior to the raid of Harpers Ferry, but this picture is from the late 1880 or 1890s. I have a similar picture that I purchased from the Baltimore Sun photo Archives that is from 1904 and the house looks just like this picture.

But if you have ever visited the Kennedy farm, or reviewed Annie's descriptions and drawings of the farmhouse, you would know that this is not what the house looked like in 1859.  Captain South T Lynn, the current owner of the Kennedy Farm, has worked long and hard to recreate the look of the farmhouse in Oct 1859.  And NO the 2 charming young ladies standing on the porch are not Annie and Martha as reported in some of the family trees at Ancestry.com. Aside from the house looking wrong, their clothes date from the 1880s and Annie and Martha would not have posed for that picture, secrecy about the project was too important.

But just to show you that even scholars can get it wrong, the picture is in Tony Horwitz's pre-release copy of his new book about John Brown, and is incorrectly identified as being from 1859.

Okay, you are saying to yourself, why is she making such a big deal about these two little errors?  Because with the easy access of the internet, information in genealogy files and trees is being copied, and copied, and copied over and over again. It is hard enough to do research, what with newspapers and even Time magazine reprinting errors*, but add to that this level of error and it is no wonder that there are very confused researchers out there.

PLEASE always VERIFY and RESEARCH new information that is presented to you. Just because it sounds plausible, does not mean it is true.

{ahem} this is me stepping off my soapbox, picking it up, and walking back home.  Thank you for listening to my venting.


*I have collected 13 newspaper reports of the death of Annie Brown Adams in 1926. Annie was the last of John Brown's children to die, and lots of papers across the United States printed, and reprinted the story. Each and every one of the newspaper accounts state that "Annie was the only one of John Brown's children to attend his hanging."  Fifty years later, Time magazine reprinted this information on the "This Day in History" page.  None of the family was in Charlestown for the hanging, the town was on under military lock down, and all civilians remained in their homes. Annie was back home in North Elba on the day of the hanging. John's wife, Mary was on in a neighboring town, waiting to come and collect her husbands body, but none of the family saw him die. Even the big newspapers and national magazines get it wrong sometimes.

1 comment:

Jean Libby said...

Right on, Alice! This constant reproduction of erroneous information is one of my pet peeves, too.

Re: Horwitz -- photographs taken in 1859 had to be processed within a short time, which is the reason for photo wagons that accompanied the photographers. Big, cumbersome, field photography really didn't get started until the Civil War created demand.

However, there is one early daguerreotype made in Kansas in 1856 by John Bowles which has a group of men standing beside a cannon. Very famous, but never identified. One of the men is Owen Brown. The original was donated to KHS by "Secret Six" minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson.