User:Jrich/Case Studies


The purpose of this page is to document particularly interesting pages that I work on. I tend to work on a lot of pages that have no connection to my family, so I see a lot of different problems. Some are interesting from a genealogical standpoint, some have morals to learn by, some are possibly noteworthy in presenting information (possibly) found no where else, some are outstanding examples of what NOT to do. These are in no particular order and the page is broken into sections somewhat arbitrarily just to make it more manageable.


William Damon

Family:William Daman and Lucy Bryant (1). This page is interesting because of the family memorial shown on Find A Grave. It does not matter how much money one spends writing something in stone, it still needs to be confirmed. There are two errors on this stone. The father did not die in 1884, it was a different William Damon who died in 1884 in Leominster. The father actually died in 1883, admittedly in December, but the distinction is important, because of the other William Damon in the records. The daughter Annie G.Gibson did not die in 1879. She was listed in the 1880 census and according to a secondary source died in 1881. Note: at the time of writing, the Find A Grave page adds its own error on top of the ones on the stone, by saying son William lived 1835-1905. This, despite the stone saying William L. Damon died in 1855, a fact backed up by vital records. There are other examples of family memorial giving wrong information. One of the more embarrassing might be this one which gets the marriages of William Nickerson's children wrong.

William Damon turned out to be an interesting case. There are at several in Worcester County. This is the late 1700's/early 1800's. So there isn't good secondary coverage (no DAR membership at stake), and the migration westward has started (the records are in dispersed locations), so the various Williams are easy to confuse. William Bennett Damon is the father of the above William. was born in Reading/Wakefield, and moved to Worcester county. The secondary source that covers his family made a 30-year typo in his birth date, and his age at death in the official death record is off more than usual, about 8 years too young, making it hard to match up birth and death in different towns. His son, above, is given two overlapping wives, one wrong, by the same secondary source mentioned above, but yet one of his actual two wives is not mentioned. This contributes to make it hard to distinguish him and his fellow citizen of Leominster, William C. Damon. The middle initial is often ignored by secondary sources, but proves the key, along with parent information on their death records. William Damon of Fitchburg was easier to figure out, but he did have a wife Lucy, so simple name matching could have resulted in mistakes with the William of the monument.

Sometimes, when only one such person is your descendant, you might be tempted not to study the others. This can be a mistake.

Good, Bad and the Ugly

Barnabas Wines seems like an unusual name to the modern ear. But it would be a mistake to simply lump all such references into one person. This is a good case in point, as discussed in the narrative. Careful study is needed to separate the various generations. Sometimes everything fits except for one small detail, but you can't simply ignore that one detail. So in this case, one author's assumption many years ago has created a myth that is hard to kill. Family:Nathaniel Moore and Sarah Vail (1) is another such myth. The wrong answer to these myths are much more common on the Internet than the right answer, and understanding why one answer's wrong takes some patience, determination, and discipline, and often makes one's head swim.

Person:Phebe Cornell (1). I spent a lot of time on this page because I know the submitter is capable of serious genealogy, having authored an article in Source:New England Historical and Genealogical Register. However, the page had no sources. Because of my respect for the submitter, I assumed it had some basis in truth, and spent two days investigating this. However, as the writeup shows, probably little, if anything, on this page is true, and it appears to have merely been copied from some unsourced website. For those that think posting anything is better than nothing, this should suggest they are wrong, because it can cause people to waste a lot of time. The more information about the source of information is posted, the more you can trust it. The corollary being, if there are no sources, don't trust it.

Family:James Dickinson and Rebecca Pickard (1). This was a fun page. Solomon Phipps married a daughter of John Pickard, named Hannah in all the records, but Hannah Pickard was born in 1670, 3 years after the date of marriage. But there is no birth record of any Hannah old enough to marry Solomon Phipps, so most people assumed Solomon married Rebecca, Hannah's older sister, whose marriage situation was otherwise unknown. One source had already suggested that the answer might be that there where two daughters of John Pickard named Hannah, because Solomon Phipps' wife died shortly after marriage in 1669, and it was possible her father simply re-cycled the name Hannah for his youngest daughter born in 1670. But the key was also showing that Rebecca was otherwise married. Two days of searching every reference to the father John Pickard turned up a son-in-law James Dickinson who had a wife Rebecca. To my knowledge, this was not previously known, not even in a single AFN file (usually every theory ever speculated, or otherwise concocted out of good or bad genealogy, is represented by at least one AFN). Quite exciting to realize there are still things to find.


Person:John Heywood (2). Two wildly different birth estimates exist in literature for this man, one resulting in him fathering a child at 77. If you arrange the sources by date, it appears that one of the dates originates from a single source, Pioneers of Massachusetts by Pope. Looking at the page (top of right-hand column), it appears that during printing, a typesetting error failed to separate two paragraphs about two different John Hayward's, and so everybody treats them as one person. Thus do errors take on a life of their own.

Bond and Savage are the source of many of these errors, as many speculations they made have become quasi-truth, even though there is not a shred of evidence to support them. Because these sources are so easy to access, and cover so many people in one book, they are sure to be copied by genealogists who care more about having an answer than whether they have the right answer. A good example is discussed on Person talk:Abigail Garfield (1). The will of John Garfield mentions a granddaughter named Sarah Parkhurst, and an Abigail married John Parkhurst, so it was assumed, apparently (no explanation given) that it was Abigail Garfield who married John Parkhurst (even though the same will says she was unmarried). Now-a-days we know the mentioned Sarah Parkhurst was the daughter of Sarah Garfield and George Parkhurst. No evidence remains to suggest Abigail Garfield married John Parkhurst, yet it continues to be repeated every where as if it were true. Meanwhile, all sorts of Abigail Garfields are made up to explain who it was that married Thomas Gleason. You must always ask, how do they know that? If you can't figure out the answer, there is still doubt there, no matter who is telling you it's so.

Another example, a myth created by Source:Morse, Abner. Memorial of the Morses, on Person:Samuel Morse (33), as discussed there. Too often part of the myth doesn't fit, and instead of throwing the whole thing out, people keep parts and often add mythical details that look good only because they clearly match the part that wasn't thrown out. Thus, based on part of Morse's error, Source:Tingley, Raymon Meyers. Some Ancestral Lines gives wife Hannah Whiting to the wrong Samuel Morse.

Early genealogists like Bond, Savage, and Morse, laid much of the foundation for what we currently know. But one has to realize it was more difficult for them to check the records compared to now when many records on available to a worldwide audience on the Internet, that they freely copied from other researchers without attribution because of the difficulty of personally inspecting the records, and they included assumptions based on partial or mistaken information without distinguishing them from facts supported by contemporary documents. In some ways, the most valuable thing WeRelate can do is document, and prominently flag such errors, to attempt to staunch the mindless propagation of such myths by "blind copyists" (from Jacobus' warning, "the genealogist should never allow his critical faculties to desert him and become a blind copyist").

Judging a Book by the Insides

We all know websites are unreliable. But books can be just as bad. Various rants may be found Source:Wheeler, Albert Gallatin. Genealogical and Encyclopedic History of the Wheeler Family in America, Source:Koleda, Elizabeth Potts. Gaskill Genealogy, Source:Moore, Arthur Clayton. Moore.

Identifying Wives

One of the hardest tasks in genealogy is to identify the parentage of wives. Identifying unknowns in my own history to focus on, I spent a lot of time on the wife of Solomon Reed trying to identify her parentage. Traditionally her name is given as Abigail Stoughton. As in the John Heywood case above, the first step was to find the oldest sources I could, and I discovered she is referred to as Abigail Houghton, and a reference to her gravestone, which gave an estimated birthdate that ruled out most likely candidates. Then a secondary source (written by a great-grandchild of hers) that gave her name as Abigail Horton, daughter of Samuel Horton of Connecticut. The step from Stoughton to Horton is unlikely, but Houghton to Horton is within the range of colonial spelling variation. What a find! The answer seemed right, it matched the estimated dates. I was happy, but there was no proof. In fact, marriage records of the area where the marriage probably occurred were lost, so it was likely none would be forthcoming, and her father died before her marriage ruling out a will. How would I convince somebody who thought differently? One day I was adding her grand-children, children of her son, but not in my line. What do I notice, but that one is named Samuel Horton Reed! A small thing, but inexplicable if the above isn't the right answer. Years of searching, and evidence was there all along if I had just broadened my exploration of the family a little more.

Sybil Brigham, the daughter of Samuel Brigham and his first wife Abigail Moore, gets married to two different men (Ebenezer Goddard and Zachariah Maynard) by different websites. (Some websites even suggest the same woman married both, but they clearly didn't check the dates.) And sure enough, vital records list the brides of both men as Sybil Brigham. But non-Quaker marriage records rarely identify a parent, and so the question is which bride is the daughter of Samuel Brigham and Abigail Moore? What's interesting is that one of these Sybils is the great-grandmother of Brigham Young (Sybil m. Ebenezer Goddard, Susanna Goddard m. Phineas Howe, and Abigail Howe married John Young), and so one would expect she has been well studied. But apparently somebody forget to tell all the websites out there.

As usual with old secondary genealogies, the "History of the Brigham Family" provides no evidence or justification when it suggests an answer (Mr. Eleazer Goddard, presumably meaning Ebenezer). So can it be trusted? I looked in vain for some identification of the Sybil who married Zachariah Maynard, thinking the answer might lie there, but that Sybil Brigham is not even mentioned. If this source wasn't aware of the controversy, they probably didn't work too hard proving what they thought was the only possible answer. So probably their conclusion carries no weight. Considerable search of the Internet failed to turn up any mention of Samuel Brigham's will, which one might hope would identify his daughter's married name. Time to order film: 386033. And sure enough, the will of Samuel Brigham names "my beloved dafter Sibbel goddard". Too easy! Everybody knows wills are useful tools, but they remain under-utilized in genealogy. One can only presume it is because it involves a little work, few being online.

The other half of the Sybil puzzle is harder, as no records offer any clue of any other Sybil Brigham, much less the specific one who was the wife of Zachariah Maynard. Her age at death suggests a birth about 1722 and the only birth of any Sybil in that timeframe appears to be a Sybil Ward, not Brigham. But it seems unlikely that she would be marrying for the second time in 1739 when only 17 (actually earlier, her child was born in 1739). So it remains an open question, waiting for someone to solve. But note to all those descendants whose only desire is to fill in the parent blanks for this Sybil: Samuel Brigham and Abigail Moore is the wrong answer! Sorry, I know how much you all hate "Unknown".

Weird Case: Person:Stevens Hayward (1) married three sisters, from older to younger: first two as maidens, third as widow.

It often happens that a case that is thoroughly researched and put to bed is totally changed by the discovery that a husband had two wives by the same name. So William Norcutt had two wives, but we only know of Sarah Chapman. The question we don't know, is she the first wife or the second? She is the mother of his first child but his widow is named Sarah. This was complicated by bad postings that gave what appears to be a bogus death date, suggesting she was his second. However, in reality, that date belongs to her brother in law. The poster liked it so much he used it for Sarah and one of Sarah's sister as well. Ignoring that misdirection, it is now possible that she was his first wife, and he married a second lady named Sarah. Either that, or Sarah had 12 children over a 28 year span. For now, no answer.

Where There's a Will

Person:Experience Reed (3). Books say Silas Reed married Experience Joslin and her brother Joseph Joslin married Experience Reed. The will of Experience Reed says she was the widow of Silas Reed, but also names her siblings, which match those of Experience (Reed) Joslin. This shows it was one person marrying twice, so born Experience Reed, marrying to become Experience Joslin, then marrying again to return to Experience Reed. This was not rocket science, but I believe, it was an original contribution. She had no children, hence no descendants, so nobody ever seemed to have bothered to dig into this. At least, it never seems to have been so posted on the Internet.

Person:Peter Reed (7), Person:Peter Reed (8), and Person:Peter Reed (9): father, son and grandson, all Peter Reed of Littleton. Littleton town records showed 2 birth dates (the oldest was born in Lexington before moving to Littleton), five marriages and four death dates. There was no way to arrange the pieces to fit. The father and son are covered in Source:Reed, Jacob Whittemore. History of the Reed Family in Europe and America, but with confusion and not well enough to figure things out (disregarding that this is an error-filled work that cannot be relied on, and it did indeed turn out to have errors on these). Since they are not in the branch of Reeds descended from William Read of Weymouth, they are not covered in Source:Reed, John Ludovicus. Reed Genealogy, another error-filled genealogy. Fortunately the wills of Middlesex County are arranged in alphabetical order, so the probate files of all three were on one film. The short answer: the father had three wives, the last when over 70; the son died young making his only wife a widow; and the grandson's death was recorded twice with two different dates (the first preceded the will but named his widow, the second approrpiately followed the writing of the will but named no wife).

Wills are among the most reliable of sources, being reviewed by courts, and all parties having a financial motive to make sure things are above board, but occasionally there are issues:

  • Did Person:Grace Unknown (249) give her daughter's entire share to only one of her children, Mary Lawless, or did she mean to name the mother of Mary Lawless?
  • [to be located]Person named in will that died 11 years before the will was written: unusual

One Source is Good, More are Better

We're not talking about copying every tree posted by all the people who just got Ancestry as a Christmas present, but contemporary sources (don't like the word primary, no clear consensus on its meaning). Person:Oliver Peabody (5) has 3 different sources giving 3 different death dates. His birth date is unknown, and since there seems to be agreement about his age at death, this means three different birth estimates. Which impacts birth estimates for siblings. So, a lot hangs on finding which is the right death date. Sources 4 and 5 enable reasonable guesses to be made about the cause of errors in two of them, suggesting not only the right answer, but creating some confidence that it is indeed the one.

My Bad

My favorite story is probably always going to be Adam Brown Richardson. Went to sea at the age of 9 in 1843, obit. says born in New York City, later census data says parents from Scotland. I could only assume going to sea so young might signal his parent/parents died. I never thought I would figure out who his parents were. A newspaper article about one of his sons, talked about a James Richardson of Bermuda who was grandfather of Mrs. Richardson. Hoping this was a typo, meaning Mr., I started investigating James Richardson of Bermuda. Unfortunately, he did turn out to be the grandfather of Mrs. Richardson. But (with lots of help from User:LornaHen) he also turned out to be the half-brother of Adam (it appears so but perhaps not proved so, but in any event, as the result of the investigation, the parents of Adam were identified). So I made a mistake, but it led in the right direction. What a lucky break!

Colonial Handwriting

Until you've tried it, it's hard to realize how tricky deciphering colonial handwriting can be.

This page, in the birth of Joseph Procter, right side, half way down, is an example I have seen a couple of times, where ones were made with squiggly lines that looks like a 5. If there had been 55 days in a month, I am sure some of the more stylized cases would have been misread. Likewise, continental style ones, with an exaggerated lip, can look like an inverted V, and get mistaken for 7 (here, birth record of Nathan Hastings near bottom of left page), or a 4 (intentions of Henry Wise, note th further suggesting it is a 4); while 4's written without sharp corners looks like a 7, and vice versa (birth of Eliza Procter).

In older writing, 1600's, e's were often written like curl-le-ques going upwards, and are easy to mistake for other vowels. The confusion of May and Aug is surprisingly common because both start with peaked letters and end with tailed letters. (Example: this page originally had a dated entered as Aug, but inspection of the original record says May, and the date the marriage was registered was June.) The flourishes put on capital letters often make them hard to recognize, often including a loop that looks like a small e (see here, spelled Leivermore probably because L had loop on it that looked like an e), causing extra letters to be read that weren't intended by the writer. There are several cases of How and Stow being confused, for example. In the 1600's, it is not uncommon to see I used for J, and V for U, and the reverse.

Your Bad

Person talk:Samuel Fletcher (23). Littleton Records, in the section of genealogical notes (i.e., not actual vital records, but the research of Samuel Smith) which say "Children of Samuel and Mary (Lawrence) Fletcher: Samuel b. Sept 8 173-, d. Oct 30 1749." Somehow, Samuel gets entered with these dates (including "173-") as the husband of Mary Lawrence, i.e, the son marries his mother. The source was copied wrong, but since no source is cited, you can't figure that out until you stumble across it (clearly recognizable because of the "173-" date). Samuel Fletcher (1707-1780) of Westford m. Mary Lawrence of Littleton, and they spent their entire married life in Westford and had 15 children, all of whom (including son Samuel born in "1730") have their birth recorded in the town's vital records, a more primary source, and also one concerned with the town where the family actually lived.

Person talk:Thomas Parke (24). As the talk page indicates, this page is so clearly wrong, it is obvious just by reading the page. But further, it is so mangled each fact almost appears to go with a different person. This appears to be copied from the first web page found mentioning the target person, and the submitter was too embarrassed to admit to which source was used? Meaning they should have known not to use it. Of course, even when you cite a source, relying on just one source is never a good practice.

The following are lists of pages illustrating certain bad practices. For errors, as opposed to odd situations, use of the history may be necessary in some cases to find a version before the page was "fixed".

The proper way to do Savage and his corrections (so if somebody is looking at an uncorrected copy, they will realize why it is different): Person:Bridget Fitch (1).


I have not encountered many cases of fraud. More likely is simply assumption promoted to fact and superficial name-matching. However, there is some.

Death Date, No Marriage

Person:Ruth Wright (9): death date given, no marriages documented, death is recorded under name of 2nd marriage: obviously somebody just copied what was wanted to fill in a blank without regard to chain of proof.

Person:Clary Sherman (1), this verion, carefully documented birth date, but gives death date with no source, no indication of marriages. Appears (I'm still waiting for reply on talk page) that this wasn't her death date at all.

Impreciseness of Age at Death

Person:Lydia Spaulding (5): Age 88, and in 88th year, both used on same person, presumably meaning the same age. But meanings differ by 1 year. Inherent ambiguity of any death record: which did they really mean?

An old version of Person:Jedidah Hawes (2) shows a birth date on exactly the same day of the year that the person died, citing WFT as the source. Since the real birthdate is known and this isn't it, we can conclude that the birth date is derived from age at death by simple subtraction. But instead of using a "cal" or "abt" qualifier, it was misrepresented as the actual birthdate. (Thus is Internet genealogy polluted with lazy, naive research.) In any event, since the age at death is in her 56th year, she was only 55, and the calculation was based on the misinterpretation of 56th year as meaning having attained age 56 when it means having finished 55 complete years, and being somewhere in the 56th year, so only age 55 and not yet 56.

Colonial Spelling

It continues to surprise me how much stock people place in colonial spelling. All it takes is a small exposure to realize it was phonetic, unregulated, variable and unreliable.

Person:Ignatius Meriam (1)

Born as Ignatius Marion, baptized as Ignatius Meriam. Same father in both cases, so why the difference? Because it reflects the spelling of the writer, not the person. The writer in one case is the town clerk, in the other case the church clerk.

Married as Ignatius Marion, children born to Ignatius Marion, but died as Ignatius Mariam. Why the change? Because he moved to a new town, so the death is recorded by a different town clerk that had no previous records to copy from, and phonetically Marion sounds like the more common Meriam. Hence, this line of a family that is not Meriam, now all spell their name Meriam (or Merriam). But if you want to find the old records for this family, you better remember to check under Marion!

Person:Joseph Barrett (9) (or just about any colonial Barrett)

More than most names, Barrett seems to have been spelled in many different ways. There is a big collection of Barretts from the town of Chelmsford, Mass. The vital records for that town include sections spelled: Barett, Barit, Barite, Baritt, Barrat, Barratt, Barret, Barrett, Barrit, Barrite, and Barritt.

Joseph's birth is recorded as Barrett, his death as Barrat. In one town, his marriage is recorded under Barrett, in his wife's hometown as Barratt. The births of his brothers and sisters are found variously under Barett and Barret. Joseph's own children are found variously under Barit, Barratt, Barret, Barrit.

There is a period in the late 1700's where mostly nicknames and names were interchangeable, but the nicknames were being to be used as names in their own right, which can make things very confusing. Even if one can follow a person, it doesn't mean the town clerk was adverse to using the variant form. Hence the family of Family:Joseph Heald and Marcy Unknown (1). They had a daughter Mary, and a daughter Mercy. Both seemed to go by Mercy in most records, but each has at least one record calling her Mary. If they weren't 10 years apart, it probably would have been impossible to tell who married whom.

Garbage In/Garbage Out

Saying so doesn't make it so. You don't find the truth by voting, so counting how many secondary source made the same mistake does not win the race. While you can assess bad sources for plausibility, only evidence shows what is true. So when faced with a hodge-podge of errors, propagated over generations, repeated by countless people unwilling to accept unknown as an answer, the only thing to do is to start collecting facts supported by primary documents. You must ignore the rest until you have a foundation of fact to build on.


First version of Person:Ann Walker (7): one editor, untouched by merge or edit for 6 years until 2013. I guess the lack of activity is no surprise: who could recognize a person born 1644, baptized 1638, d. 1681, and buried 1775 (must have been smelly by then) as their ancestor? Ann Walker turns out to be her married name (first husband) and so this is essentially all fiction.

Why even bother to create this page? Talk about no extra effort! [1]

One source listed the wife of Luther Brown as Elizabeth. All records says Sarah or Sally, etc. So a page is created with the name Elizabeth and alternate names Sarah and Sallee. Sarah and Elizabeth are never interchangeable names, so the hair on somebody's neck (besides mine) should have been raised, but no, a birthdate close to right was found for "Elizabeth Smith Peabody", which being prior to the use of middle names, was clearly a married name, not a birth name (Elizabeth Smith married Joseph Peabody), but in order to satisfy the one source that said Elizabeth, it was added, making one source's error less like reality than it already was.

Lack of Sources

Human error is inevitable. Even if everybody was equally well-trained in genealogy instead of relying on the easiest sources, and always worked exhaustively to find the truth instead of taking the first answer found with no further search, errors would creep in due to simply human error. One of the subtler benefits of sources it that it makes it harder to do this: you have to type something twice, and if you do it honestly, both from the original, it acts like confirming your password.

Person:Elizabeth Holden (15) died 23 Jul 1874 by record, and her husband remarried in 1879, providing qualitative confirmation of that fact. As of writing, the Find A Grave page gives the death date as 23 Jul 1894, with no picture. Clearly a simple typo, or possibly, a misreading of the stone. But with no picture, people that only see the Find A Grave site will be awfully confused.

The Authority to Estimate

Estimating dates should be based on some information, i.e., an educated guess, and not merely be made up. For that reason, estimates can actually be somewhat hard to do, as they often require more research, not less, than cases where the actual data is found. Collaboration suggests that anything much more elaborate than an age at death calculation should be explained so that subsequent readers can understand the limits of what is known, and what is not known. Two examples of bad estimating: [2] and [3].