26 March 2017

How I Make Use of Internet Information

I’ve written before about my cousin John Black, who died at the age of 90 in 2014.  As the family historian of his branch of the family, he was part of my inspiration to pursue my own family history.  I did, however, adapt his advice to accommodate current technology and Internet resources. Sometime around 2005, I had a conversation with him about information I had found searching the web. He said “you can’t trust anything from the Internet!” To say that he was “old school” would be a tremendous understatement!  In his 80s, he was not an Internet user (he sent letters to me by postal mail, typed on a manual typewriter), but he had certainly heard stories from other genealogists about the danger of taking data from Internet sources. He had valid reasons for his distrust of the Internet, but that was just part of the story. 

The Internet can be a source of good information as well as bad.  As with any type of research, data found from something other than the original source should always be verified.  For me, I consider “original source” to be a somewhat fluid thing: reproductions of original documents work for me, as well as transcriptions or abstracts from trusted sources. Published research (private or public) conducted by genealogists and researchers of good reputation is also considered solid.  But a lineage taken from an online family history service or private website should be taken with a grain of salt.  I have developed the following process to validate the data I find online.

Don’t just accept what you find online: verify, verify, verify!  Particularly if the information seems too good to be true or leads to a whole line of noble or famous ancestors.  It’s not to say that many people aren’t descended from those lines, but not every famous lineage published online is real. In fact, there are some individuals who approach their family history with the specific goal of making their pedigree as “important” as possible by populating it with famous names, substantiated or not. 

NEHGS in Boston, MA
Some people with this mindset will find a link that could tenuously be made if one makes assumptions with no proof and the link gets published in their online family tree.  Others simply fabricate the connections.  Once published, others researching the same line then pick up these incorrect connections.  Assumption (or fabrication) becomes belief and belief becomes assumed fact.   Yet, other published connections to the famous are correct and valid.  So how do we determine which are correct and which are erroneous?

Sometimes an individual’s published online tree does provide a source citation or a data point that can be easily confirmed.  I learned how to best approach these online family trees when I had a consultation with a professional genealogist at the New England Genealogical Historic Society (NEHGS) in Boston (www.americanancestors.com). 

Portion of Darius Dirlam's (my 3-great-grandfather)
handwritten eulogy to General Sherman, an old family friend
I wondered about the origins of my maternal grandfather, Joel Dirlam.  We knew that Dirlam was a German surname and that the family had been in Ohio for several generations up to the birth of my grandfather, but we knew nothing about the immigrant ancestor.  There is a town of Dirlammen in Germany and we’d always assumed that the family originated there.  But I could find nothing beyond my grandfather’s great-great-grandfather, Sylvanus Dirlam (still, an impressive line of eight generations from Sylvanus to me).  His son, Darius Dirlam, was buried in Mansfield, Ohio where he died in 1919.  Darius was a judge and lawyer in law practice with John Sherman (brother of General Sherman), who was later to become Secretary of State.  But I had no information on Darius’ father Sylvanus other than his name.  This was where my information ended.

13 Generations of Dirlams
The professional genealogist who helped me, Rhonda McClure, searched for Sylvanus on one of the family history sites, found a tree in which he was included and printed the information it displayed for his parentage.  The online tree indicated that Sylvanus was born in Becket, MA to John Oderick Dirlam and Sarah Snow.  Rhonda then switched screens and searched the NEHGS digitized records of Massachusetts and immediately located the birth record for Sylvanus, thus proving his record.  We then set out to prove the birth record for Darius.  We then looked up John Oderick Dirlam’s record and were able to trace him back to the Hess-Kassel region of Germany, to the north of Dirlammen.  As it turns out, this immigrant ancestor came over as a Hessian mercenary, hired by the British to fight against the colonists in the American Revolution.  As Rhonda McClure dryly pointed out, if I wanted membership in the SAR, I shouldn’t mention this ancestor.

The process she demonstrated was systematic and extremely helpful to me.  I honestly didn’t know how to begin to find information on an unknown ancestor.  I was scared to just jump into the online family trees and take what I found there verbatim – Rhonda showed me how to use that information as a starting point and how to then verify it independently.  I’ve used that process ever since that day.

When I set out to research a new ancestor, I follow these steps, generally starting with Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org:

1.      Search for any records available online, starting with birth, marriage and death records.  This will generally return a series of abstracts or copies of records that are not the original.  If you’re using FamilySearch.org (a website run by the Mormon Church), their records will often provide a microfilm or reference number, which can then be used to order the films for viewing near you.  They have their own reading rooms around the country as well as arrangements with libraries and societies to which they will deliver the films for review.
2.     Search for other types of records – if the ancestor falls in a published census time frame (essentially 1800s through 1940), not only the US Census but state census information can be helpful.  Depending on the specific census year, you’ll find birth year, birth month, total number of children women have had (in case you worry you’ve missed a sibling along the way), addresses, etc.  Other records include online obituaries, photos of gravestones at Find-a-Grave, etc.  These secondary records can be quite informative. (See my earlier post about the Unknown Relative which relates how I made contact with distant cousins through Find-a-Grave.)
3.     If I can’t locate the information I need from these sources, I then look to see if the ancestor is listed on an individual’s family tree.  If I find such a reference, I look for entries with citations – do they link to a source for the data provided?  If so, that helps (as with the search, above, for Sylvanus Dirlam) to point me in the correct direction.  If there are no citations, the information at least provides me with a starting point to go back and search again, using the information found on the tree as the starting point.
4.     If I find multiple trees with the same ancestor, but no citations, I look at other entries on their trees to see if they provide citations for other people.  If they do, that’s an indication that they at least have some attention to detail.  This is particularly helpful if multiple trees provide conflicting data!  Tentatively accept the information that appears to be from the most fastidious source.
5.     Once Ancestry and FamilySearch have been exhausted, I have one more important website to check: AmericanAncestors.org, where journals, abstracts and an increasing number of databases are being made available.  Once I’ve finished there, my last step is a Google search to see what else may be out there on the Internet.  Google is particularly good for obituaries, images and for finding Wikipedia references.
6.    I have a checkbox on my own pedigree charts for all critical information, dates and places of birth, marriage and death.  If I have located and saved the source for the data, then I tick the check box.  If I can’t prove something, then I leave the box unchecked and I know that it is unverified and could be disproven at some point.  If a name is uncertain (or if the relationship is uncertain) I just put “poss” (or “prob”, if there’s a strong likelihood) in front of the name so I’ll know that this is an individual to delve into further.

Portion of my Pedigree Chart #10, showing some
confirmed data (tickmarks) and much data still to verify!
The three primary sites I use are:

I have accounts with all three (FamilySearch is a free site hosted by the Mormon Church) and they each have their unique uses.

AmericanAncestors.org is the website of the New England Historic and Genealogical Society and is wonderful for finding published information from their own and many other genealogical journals.  They also have many vital statistics databases and abstracts of town records and many other types of data.  They actively update their databases weekly with access to new sources and updates to current sources. The new databases are often made available to non-members for free at the start before access is restricted.  In addition, they are slowly digitizing the books in their library and are always looking for suggestions about which books to scan next to make them available online.

NEHGS website search screen.
I’ll make my plug here: membership is well worth it, particularly if you have family links back to pre-Revolutionary colonial America. If you have New England ancestors who came to the colonies by 1635, they have extensive information in their Great Migration database.  But they are not just about New England and have extensive resources for the entire country. And their physical library in Boston is amazing!

Ancestry.com is a great source for vital statistics, census data and other, more obscure information.  There are ships’ passenger manifests, links to other websites (Find-a-Grave, for example) and many interesting records that could provide that one piece of information you need to complete the puzzle (passport applications, military registrations, etc.).  Of course you’ll also find many family trees from users, both those that are well researched and their opposites!

FamilySearch.org, the Latter Day Saints site, is a useful site for locating vital statistics – if I can’t locate the information needed on Ancestry, I check FamilySearch.  They also have extensive microfilm collections that you can request – they will deliver to a nearby library or reading center, where you can review the film.  If I am planning a visit to NEHGS in Boston for research, I often request LDS films to coincide with my visit and review them there in conjunction with my other research.

One of the charts drawn up by my
cousin, John Black
My cousin John was right to be skeptical of genealogical information online, but his wholesale dismissal of its uses was a mistake, a realization he came to as well, particularly after I discussed this very topic with him.  I do most of my research online, which saves me time when compared with my various ancestors who spent weeks at a time poring over court records or county vital statistics.  But it is still not as easy as one might think.  Just as college professors won’t accept “Wikipedia” as a source for information in a student’s paper, we, as family historians, can’t accept “Ancestry.com Tree” as a source for our own pedigrees.  We need to roll up our sleeves and delve deeper.  The time spent up front will save you time later on and will keep you from eventually replacing bad information with good.


These are the search criteria I use as I look up records on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org.  If I am missing one of these elements, I just skip the field:

·      Last name, first name
·      Spouse name
·      Location / year of birth
·      Location / year of death

This will often give me a very broad search result that then needs to be culled – first I filter by birth and death records, which includes vital statistics databases, Find-a-Grave and other sources.  Then I’ll look at census records, if my ancestor falls in the census timeframe.  Then I search for pictures – for two reasons.  First, if the person who owns the tree has a photo of the ancestor, it is likely that they will have better information, since they’ve got some access to records.  Also, some people use a screen shot of a vital statistic for their photo record.  On Ancestry, the site has made a concerted effort to make the proofs more important and more easily reviewed, with clear links between the statistic and the linked record.

I then go to AmericanAncestors.org, the NEHGS website, and search their database.  Here I use the name as the search criteria and then select the “Journals and Publications” category for my first search.  If appropriate, I will then search the “Great Migration” category (early American ancestors who may have arrived prior to 1635).  In these categories, their date fields are not tied to the individual vital statistics, rather to the date of publication of the article, so I leave dates blank.  I then add a connected person (spouse, parent, etc.) and remove all category selections to search their entire database to see what might be found in other databases.  Next, I add in key dates (birth, marriage, death) to further narrow the search and limit the search to “vital records”.

Finally, Google!  As a last step, I do a general Google search, usually using the individual’s name, a vital statistic date and a place name.  This will often shake loose an obituary, a family tree on its own website, Wikipedia pages, etc.  It’s a lot harder to cull through the Google results, as they are not specifically returned with a genealogical filter, but it can return some valuable results.  Once I’ve reviewed the general results, I perform an image search, then a book search, to see what comes back from those two media.

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