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Genealogy Essays:

Recording Adoptions
How do you draw adopted children in a family tree? (2011)

Those Elusive Edes
9 lessons learned about finding people in the census. (2009)

The Joys of Inveterate Button Pushing (2004)

Who's Your Daddy?
Genealogy versus family history. (2004)

Suspicion Meters
Your program doesn't have one, but you do. (2004)

Estimating Dates (2002)

A cautionary tale (2002)

Count Your Blessings
1988 and now (2002)

The Grand Chase
How my individuals connect (2002)

What makes a family? (2001)

A genalogical detective story (2000)

Eben J. Cady
Musing about a tombstone (2000)

Related Sections:
Main Genealogy Page
Beginning Genealogy
Intermediate Genealogy
Biography questions

Other Sections:
Christmas Letters
Misc. Essays
Peace Corps
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(First published in Missing Links: A Magazine for Genealogists
The Petunia Press
Volume 7, No. 23, 9 June 2002)

For a brief, unhappy period of my life my morning commute was two hours long, on a freeway. Inevitably, at some point along the way, traffic would slow to a crawl across all five west- bound lanes. I'd come around a curve or over a hill, notice a sea of brake lights ahead of me, take my foot off the gas and come to a safe, slow, gradual stop. Also inevitably, some other driver, usually in a Datsun B-210 with primer-gray quarter- panels, would see the same situation and decide that he could find a magic shortcut to lane that hadn't jammed. He'd dart from lane to lane like a hummingbird on methamphetamine, until he either ended up in the median strip with a windshield full of oleander leaves or slammed on his brakes at the last minute, laying down four dollars worth of rubber in skid marks.

Just after college, and long before my commuting days, I taught in a secondary school in Borneo as a Peace Corps Volunteer. One of my students wanted to be a lawyer, which he saw as a stepping stone to becoming Prime Minister of Malaysia. I tried to tell him that meant studying hard enough to get into Form 6 (a sort of elite junior college), then three years of University, then three years of law school. He, however, had seen an advertisement for a community college in Canada, which offered a two-year course in Law Enforcement to secondary school graduates. He was convinced he had found a magic shortcut. Nothing I could say or do would convince him that the course he found was for police officers, not lawyers.

Some genealogists, in a mad rush to collect as many individuals as fast as they can, think they too have found a magic shortcut. You can download GEDCOM files from half a dozen major sites on the Internet or from WFT CDs. You can get them from fellow genealogists, too. Buy a couple of CDs, surf the Internet for a few weeks, download as fast as you can and Bingo! -- you have 50,000 individuals in your tree. That's ten times as many as the little old lady at the county genealogy society who has been working on her collection since 1962, with a pencil, paper and SASE's. (Neener, neener, neener.) There is a problem, however. Not all of the data out there is accurate.

Look at Jacob Blankenbaker, who appears in the LDS Ancestral File:

Jacob Blankenbaker (AFN: FX0M-QR)
Birth: 18 Jan 1725 Germanna, Spotsylvania, Virginia
Death: 02 Jan 1753 Jefferson [County], Kentucky

Spouse: Mary Barbara Thomas (AFN: FX0M-RX)
Marriage: 1752.

Spouse: Hannah Weaver (AFN: FX0N-19)
Marriage: 1 Feb 1791, Culpeper [County], Virginia.

Elizabeth, born 3 Jan 1754.
Samuel, born 31 Jul 1754.
Henry, born 25 Jun 1756.
Frank, born abt 1756.
Nicholas born 6 Oct 1758.
Abraham, born 6 Oct 1758.
Thomas, born 2 Jan 1762.

You'll notice some errors:

  • All seven children were born after Jacob died. A child is sometimes born after the father dies, but Jacob's were begotten after he died, which is rare.
  • Elizabeth and Samuel were twins, born six months apart
  • Jacob married his second wife, Hannah, 38 years after he died.

The volunteers at my Family History Center tell me the Ancestral File data base is 75% accurate. This family is one of the other 25%. When you click on "Submitters," the problem becomes obvious. Eleven people contributed data to that little family. It looks like the program that merged all of the data still has some bugs in it. Still, it put Jacob out there on the Internet for the world to download.

Five people on Roots Web's World Connect have Jacob in their data exactly as he is on the AF, errors and all. [Historical note - They may have changed by now.] You can't tell where they copied him from, but you can bet they did it quickly. I had Jacob, with no death date and a note saying something was suspicious about his first two children.

A long-time Blankenbaker researcher, Donna Smith/Bowen, put a post-em on my RootsWeb WorldConnect data, giving accurate birth dates for Elizabeth and Samuel. I wrote to thank her and ask her for her sources. She wrote "My sources are Lela Blankenbaker / Harris' DAR Records of Samuel Blankenbaker, family members and a lot of reading -- court records, wills, marriage books and family histories." Not a shortcut in any one of them, you'll note. The Internet is wonderful. It has a lot of clues, and a lot of accurate data. Be careful, though; it isn't magic.

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This page updated: June 21, 2014