Saturday, March 2, 2013

It's Online, So It Must Be True! Right?

NO!!  I'm not much of a commercial watcher on tv, however there is one State Farm commercial that illustrates this point beautifully. In this commercial a girl is talking to her friend and waiting for her date to show up, a French model, that she met on the internet. While waiting she tells her friend that everything on the internet is true, and the girl knows this because she read it on the internet. Finally her date shows up, and he is clearly not a model nor French.

Just because somebody wrote that your ancestor is related to Joe Shmoe doesn't mean that it is true. How can you tell if it is true or might be true? Look for footnotes citing documents that support the statements or at least a discussion of documents leading to this conclusion. You will have to judge if the documentation is enough to support the theory. Even better would be to search out those documents yourself and make your own conclusions.

Several months ago I had a cousin of sorts contact me about a common Fry ancestor. I mentioned that I was aware of several ancestors through family lore before our common one, but that I hadn't made a paper/document connection between them yet. During our conversation this cousin told me about the Heinrich Frey Family Association. My cousin said the connections were all right there. I was very excited.

After getting off the phone I immediately Googled the association. I went to the page with the generations outlined, scrolled down, and there was our common ancestor, Jefferson Fry! This was great! I scrolled down further and discovered.....not a single citation to support any of these statements. Argh!! Even worse (better?) I found a mistake. There is a girl listed as Jefferson's daughter and it is not true. I can prove it. For a few years I've had a hypothesis about who she was, but had not been able to get my hands on anything to support my theory. This past summer at NARA I found a Homestead Land Record that gives a wonderfully detailed description of her relation to the family. I would give you more details, but I recently I had the sudden notion this could make a great case study write up. So I'm saving it for the time being.

Now, having said that there were no citations on this website, I do not mean to imply that all of these statements/connections are false by any means. By wandering through the site I was able to tell that some people have actually put in a lot of research time to prove connections. For whatever reason the website has just not included citations. I guess I'll have to contact them and find out why.

When researching family history a bit of skepticism is healthy. Personally, I think it makes you a better genealogist. It doesn't mean that you have to call people out on their research and make a fuss. However, it does make you think for yourself and construct your own conclusions.

Note: If you are related to Jefferson Fry and want to know about the girl in question, email me and I'll tell you what I found. 


  1. Such a good point. Everytime I reach out to a cousin, whether through a website or email, I ask for sources for whatever information they give me. I found that 90% of them do not provide it...or more importantly, don't have it! I've seen some online family tree websites that have sources, but more often than not they are like the one you came across. However, I do know that some people keep their sources close to their vests because of all the time/money they have spent to come across them. I had one reader tell me that they don't want someone just swiping their info so they don't post sources in the hopes that the individual will contact them directly. I see that side of the coin but I also think that opens the can for people to continue passing on unsourced information. Great point and post!

  2. I agree entirely - I spent years following a false lead because of how a supposedly more experienced genealogist had interpreted a word - hopefully I know better now. I recently wrote a series of blog posts about these issues: