a new beef

If you have come anywhere close to this blog before, you have heard me grouse about online family trees at Ancestry, Family History Search, and other websites. I have preached ad nauseam that “information” on such sites does not prove anything.[1] It is not even evidence, much less  proof.  Actual family history evidence — which leads to proof — comes from original sources such as county probate records, deeds, tax lists, state birth and death records, and so forth. Online trees are, at best, clues. For the most part, they aren’t worth the paper it would take to print them. 

I obviously haven’t whined and moaned enough. It’s time to kick it up a notch.

A friend with considerable DNA expertise advised Gary and me to take the autosomal DNA test at Ancestry, although we had already tested at FTDNA. He said Ancestry has a larger database and that (at the time) their autosomal results featured something useful called “circles” of people to whom you are genetically related. The “circles” are now gone. What is left is something called “thru lines.”

I haven’t looked at “thru lines.” What I found out right off the bat (according to Ancestry) is that one’s autosomal results aren’t worth a spit unless you have a family tree at Ancestry.

Accordingly, I began to create one. Ancestry purportedly makes it easy by providing “hints.” For example, when I entered the name of a grandparent, a census record in which the grandparent appeared popped up. For the first few generations of a new tree, Ancestry’s suggestions are probably mostly accurate and harmless. There is good information in plenty of readily accessible information in twentieth-century census, marriage, birth and death records. More importantly, most of us know from personal experience the names of our parents, grandparents, and perhaps some great-grandparents. When that is the case, Ancestry’s suggestions, even if erroneous, don’t really matter. No harm, no foul for, say, the twentieth century.

The wicket gets a bit sticky as you make your way into the 19th century. It gets worse the further back in time you go. Let’s assume you have already done a good job researching your family history via conventional paper research in county and other primary records. You will be well-equipped to know whether Ancestry is providing accurate information when it suggests the names of an ancestor’s parents … or whether it is just providing names obtained from other family trees.

I eventually gave up on my autosomal results because of the arrant nonsense Ancestry was suggesting as possible parents for my relatives. Here are examples:

  • Ancestry suggested that the mother of my ancestor “Nancy” Ann Allen Winn Estes (wife of Lyddal Bacon Estes of Tishomingo Co., MS) was Lettice “Letty” Stone. This misinformation gets the “SAY, WHAT?” award. Other than the fact that Letty may also have been from Lunenburg and may have married a Winn — Lunenburg was awash in Winns and Stones in the nineteenth century — that is pure fiction, not fact. There are a million Lunenburg County records proving that “Nancy” Ann Allen Winn’s parents were Benjamin Winn and that his wife’s name was Lucretia (Andrews). Please forgive my hyperbole.
  • Ancestry suggested that Nancy Winn Estes’s husband Lyddal Bacon Estes (“LBE”) married Sally Alston Hunter. We need an emoji here for a big Bronx cheer. Sally Hunter did marry a Dr. Lyddal Bacon Estes (“Dr. LBE”). Dr. LBE and LBE were different men. This is a classic case of I wrote about “same name confusion.”  The Lunenburg couple — LBE and Nancy Winn — married there in March 1814. Dr. LBE died November 1814 in Maury Co., TN, and his widow was named “Sally” in at least two county records. LBE continued to appear in Lunenburg tax lists after Dr. LBE died. A comment by Shirley McLane’s character Ouizer Boudreaux in Steel Magnolias comes to mind: “these are not difficult questions!”
  • Chesley Estes, son of Benjamin and Frances Bacon Estes of Lunenburg, was not the father of the LBE who married Nancy Winn. Chesley died in Maury Co., TN, having never married and having lived with his parents most of his life. This one at least gets a “close, but no cigar” award: Chesley’s sister Mary Estes was LBE’s mother. Her identity is, I confess, a more difficult question, although Chesley’s lack of children  is not.
  • Benjamin and Frances Bacon Estes were the parents of Dr. LBE who married Sally Alston Hunter and died in Maury Co., TN in 1814. They were not the parents of LBE who married Nancy Winn in Lunenburg in 1814 and eventually settled in Tishomingo Co., MS. LBE died there between December 1844 and March 1845, and Nancy was his administratrix.  Here is an article  about LBE and Nancy Winn Estes’s family.
  • When Ancestry tells you it may have identified a parent for one of your ancestors, you can click on a link for the source of the information. You get only one guess for the source 99% of the time … And the winner is: someone else’s family tree. I made the mistake of messaging one of the tree owners about an error, but I should have known better. Correcting someone else’s family tree is like trying to teach a pig to sing. It is a waste of your time, and it just irritates the pig. 

Here is a link to Roberta Estes’s post about “thru lines.” She explains it better than I could.  

And here is the bottom line. It has always been obvious that many, if not most, family trees on Ancestry and other genealogy sites are constructed by copying other people’s family trees. This is a fast way to spread both bad and good information. Ancestry has now exacerbated and accelerated that process by helping people rapidly construct family trees with information obtained almost primarily? exclusively? from other peoples’ family trees. Ancestry, bless its heart, is killing credible family history research. That may not be a good long-term business model.

Gary, who likes to predict comments I will receive on my posts, says I’m going to get one saying, “No, Ancestry is just killing antiquated effete intellectual ‘researchers’ who think solving genealogical puzzles by digging through actual records is ‘fun.’”

One final note. If you aren’t familiar with Southern idiom, “bless her/his/its heart” means “what a total idiot.”

See you on down the road.


[1]Some online trees do provide sources such as census and probate records. Such information is obviously worthwhile provided it is associated with the right person. There are many probate records attached to Mr. X on Ancestry, when the will in question was actually written by Mr. Y, who lived a generation later and lived 6 counties west. Both Mr. X and Mr. Y were named John Smith, but that doesn’t mean they were the same man.

Indices to Administration Accounts of Caroline County, Maryland

As many of you know, Family Search publishes online scans of original documents such as wills and probate record books. Some of those original volumes contain at least a partial index in the front or back. You must look at each book to discover if you are lucky enough to find one with an index, and further, whether the surviving pages contain names you seek.

I recently discovered that the Caroline County, Maryland Administration Accounts Books available on Family Search do not have any such index. Finding anything related to my ancestors meant I had to page through every image. I felt like I was back in front of a microfilm reader scrolling, scrolling, and scrolling, forever.

Knowing that I would never know every name to capture on the first run through the volume, I decided to make an index. Then, I could come back later and pick up people I had missed the first or second time through the record.

There are seven volumes of Admin Accounts from 1703-1850. Initially, I completed an index for the volumes for 1790-1805 and 1805-1817. I asked the Upper Shore Genealogical Society of Maryland (USGSMD) to publish them on their website free of charge to all interested parties, and they have gladly complied. Here is a link …  

I recently finished the index for 1703-1776 and have sent it to USGSMD. I expect them to post it soon. Most of this particular record, of course, is for Dorchester County, prior to the formation of Caroline. By the way, this record contains data not included in the books previously indexed. Many of these accounts indicate surviving children of the deceased, sometimes noting those of age and those who are minors. If your ancestor did not leave a will, an administration account containing children’s names might be the only direct evidence available of those relationships. You will want to check out the result to see if you are among the lucky ones!

Once you have found a name in the index at you will need to find that item at Family Search. This link goes straight to the page in Family Search containing the Administration Accounts (and many other records)

However, the link may not work unless you are already signed in to your (free) account at Family Search. Therefore, here is the step-by-step approach.

1) Login to Family Search. If you do not have an account, create one for free.

2) Select “Search” and then “Records” from the pull down menu.

3) At the Research By Location page, click on the US map and select “Maryland.” 

4) On the Maryland Research Page scroll below the section titled Indexed Records to “Image-Only Historical Records.”

5) Scroll down to the fourth subsection, “Probate and Court.”

6) In that subsection, click on “Maryland Register of Wills Records, 1629-1999.”

7) When the next page comes up, click on “Browse through 1,933,787 images.” Browsing through 2 million records really sounds like fun doesn’t it? Don’t worry … press on.

8) Select “Caroline.”

The next page will display all the available records including the seven volumes of Administration Accounts from 1703-1850. Unfortunately, the records from 1776-1790 are missing.

Again, the indices for the first, second, and third volumes are available at Upper Shore Genealogical Society of Maryland. I will get to the other four in due time.

Reprise: what is “proof” of family history?

This is a repost of an article from 2018. It has received more views on this website than any article I’ve written except the one about the the Scots-Irish. The title indicates the topic is genealogical proof , which is a slight misdirection. The article is initially about what is, and is not, genealogical evidence. Then it attacks a tougher question: how much evidence is needed to say we have proof. Now, back to the original article.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

I have a distant cousin (seventh cousins, maybe?) named Roberta Estes. We “met” online via Estes research some twenty years ago.  We finally met in person, spending a week together in Halifax County, VA doing nitty-gritty research among records in the basement of the Halifax courthouse. I knew I had found a kindred spirit when I learned she likes tax and deed records as much as I do.

Roberta writes an excellent blog called “DNA Explained.” A great many of her posts are about DNA “science.” When I have a question about DNA, the first place I go is to her blog and search her Archives.

Roberta’s post today is on a topic that will interest all family history researchers: what is, and what is NOT, genealogical “proof,” as she uses that term. Here is a link to  her post. 

What resonated most with me was her list of things that do NOT constitute “proof.” I have copied part of it below, with my comments and modifications in italics (the numbering has changed from her original list since I deleted a few items):

  1. Proof is not an oral history, no matter how much you want to believe it or who said it. Oral history is a good starting point, not an end point.
  2. Proof is not, not, 1000 times NOT someone else’s tree. A tree should be considered a hint, nothing more.
  3. Proof is not a book without corresponding evidence that can be independently corroborated. Being in print does not make it so. People make mistakes and new information surfaces. Unfortunately, there are also genealogical frauds – see, e.g., Gustave Anjou.
  4. Proof is not a man by the name of Jr. [taken to mean] that he is the son of a man by the same name with the suffix of Sr. “Sr.” often means older and “Jr.” means younger, but not necessarily related. In fact, the suffix can change over time for the SAME MAN: a Robert Rankin who initially showed up in Guilford, NC records as “Robert JUNIOR.” became “Robert SENIOR” after Robert the elder (his father) died.
  5. Proof of a father/son relationship is not just two men with the same name in the same location.  I have a copy of a 1762 Lunenburg Co., VA deed, Thomas Winn grantor, witnessed by John Winn, Daniel Winn, John Winn, and John Winn. Nothing to distinguish between the John Winns. Some of those colonists clearly had a sense of humor. Lunenburg Deed Book 7: 227. 
  6. Proof is not just a will or other document … without evidence that a person by the same name as the child named in the will is the RIGHT person.

The lawyer in me, retired though she might be, feels compelled to expand on Roberta’s discussion of “proof.” Namely, I want to draw a distinction between “proof” and “evidence,” and the amount of evidence that is needed to produce a certain standard of proof. 

The definition of “evidence” takes up a full page in Black’s Law Dictionary. Fortunately, the essence of the meaning of “evidence” as it relates to genealogical research is pretty easy to distill. Try this on for size: EVIDENCE is anything that is offered to prove the existence or nonexistence of a fact. In genealogy, evidence includes deeds, will and other probate records, tax lists, church birth and death records, census records, tombstone inscriptions, and so on. It does not include a family tree posted at the FHL or Ancestry websites, nor does it include a compiled family history, which is how trees were published in the pre-internet era.

Notice that the word “prove” appears in the definition of evidence. Here is what Black’s has to say about that: PROOF is the effect of evidence.

Boiling both definitions down, evidence is what supports a belief that a fact is proved (or disproved).

If you have ever served on a jury, you already know there are different “standards of proof.” In a Texas criminal trial, the standard of proof requires a defendant’s guilt to be established “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a Texas civil case, the standard of proof is usually “preponderance of the evidence.”

Another standard of proof lying somewhere between those two is “great weight and preponderance of the evidence.” Law students, who like to boil things down to something understandable, may view it like this:

  • Beyond a reasonable doubt: at least 95% of the facts compel a certain conclusion.
  • Great weight and preponderance: 65-85% of the evidence supports a conclusion.
  • Preponderance of the evidence: a conclusion is more likely than not – it has the weight of at least 51% of the evidence.

Naturally, there are parallels in family history research, or I wouldn’t be carrying on about this.

You frequently see the phrase “conclusively proved” in family history articles. This is roughly equivalent to “beyond a reasonable doubt.” For example, my paternal grandmother’s identity – Emma Brodnax Rankin – is conclusively proved by my birth certificate, my father’s birth certificate, his mother’s will naming him as a son, census records naming him as a son, ad infinitum. There is also my recollection of all those awful holiday dinners in her grotesquely overheated house in Gibsland, Bienville Parish, Louisiana. A court would call my testimony about those dinners at Ma Rankin’s “direct evidence” based on personal knowledge. If I’m a credible witness, THAT case is closed.

When you see the phrase “conclusively proved,” it means there is really no reasonable argument to the contrary. That is how I use the phrase on this blog. There is no reasonable argument that anyone other than Emma Brodnax Rankin was my paternal grandmother.

Use of the word “probably” in family history articles seems to equate with “preponderance of the evidence.” Namely, a conclusion is more likely than not.

Similarly, the phrases “most likely” or “almost certainly” are somewhere in between the other two. There may be a reasonable doubt, but the weight of credible evidence strongly points one way.

The “eye of the beholder” obviously plays a role in this determination. I may deem a conclusion “most likely;” you might find it only “probable.” This is a good reason why one would want to know the evidence for another genealogist’s conclusion … you might not find the evidence sufficiently compelling to justify accepting the conclusion.

We also need to talk about “circumstantial” evidence, because sometimes there is no other proof of a family relationship. That is particularly true in counties where records have been lost and documentary evidence is limited. “Circumstantial evidence” just means facts that lead to a reasonable inference.

For example, the fact that a 65-year old man named Jedediah Rankin is listed in the 1860 census in a household immediately adjacent to 40-year old Jacob Rankin constitutes circumstantial evidence of a relationship. You can reasonably infer some family connection between the two men because such an inference accords with common sense and experience. If Jacob and Jedediah witness each other’s deeds, that would provide additional circumstantial evidence of a family relationship. If Jacob named his eldest son Jedediah, and Jedediah Sr. was security on Jacob’s marriage bond, those facts would also be circumstantial evidence.

Circumstantial evidence such as this can establish a compelling web of family connections suggesting only one reasonable conclusion: Jacob was Jedediah’s son. It is a powerful tool in serious research.

One last red flag about “proof:” beware the passive voice, a grammatical form that frequently signals lack of evidence. Keep an eye out for these phrases, which appear in many compiled family histories: “it is thought that …” or “it is believed that …”  or “it is reported that ...”  Hmmmmm…. who believed or reported? And what is his or her evidence? Those phrases rightfully justify a jaundiced eye unless the writer provides evidence supporting the “belief.”

In all fairness, I do need to point out one thing about those old compiled family histories. Academic writers routinely cite evidence supporting factual assertions in their books, papers, and articles. Historically, family history researchers have not done so. No telling why — perhaps because genealogists, unlike academics, aren’t writing to burnish a reputation or (usually) to make money. We do this because it’s fun, or we want to share, or we’re just curious about our history. Or all of the above. 

Fortunately, more family history researchers now seem willing to share evidence and provide citations to county and other records. As a cautionary note, though, here’s a piece of advice I received from a woman researcher I had been peppering with questions via email back in the ’90s. She had obviously reached the end of her rope. “Honey,” she said, “if you really want to find answers to all those questions, I suggest you go dig around in the records of Middlesex County, Virginia. Your library has a bunch of good abstracts.” <grin> I took her advice.

Finally, back to Roberta’s list of “not proof,” item #2, someone else’s tree. It may be a fact that “many online trees” show Jedediah Rankin as Jacob Rankin’s father. Those online trees are not even evidence of a relationship between those two men. All they might prove is that many online trees are copies of other online family trees. Or that many people believe Jedediah was Jacob’s father. But … evidence? Nope.

See you on down the road.