August 08, 2002
I was dismayed to open my e-mail this past week and discover that a group of cousins were no longer speaking over this very subject. One of the researchers was asking the others for information on the places of death of those in their combined Family File. They have apparently been sharing their respective work with each other and importing it into their Family Tree Maker database.
Didn't Die Where He Lived
When I talk about the Social Security Death Index, I make it a point to remind those using it to not assume that the Last Place of Residence is the place of death for that individual. In the SSDI, the Last Place of Residence was the last know legal residence of the individual. This is not always where the person was when they died, though it is certainly a place to begin your research for a death certificate.
When I talk about this, I mention my grandfather who, at the time of his death, was visiting one of his grandchildren and got sick. Unfortunately he would not recover and he died there. The grandchild he was visiting lived in Florida. His death is recorded in that state. If you were to look him up in the SSDI though, his Last Place of Residence would be listed as New Hampshire.
Now, while it is true that we are a more mobile society than in the past, this is an example of what happens when assumptions are made or complete information is not shared. Genealogists could spend years wasting time searching for his death certificate in New Hampshire. Their one saving grace would be that his will was probated there, and if they looked into his probate records it is possible they would be alerted to the fact that he died in Florida.
As long as they eventually found the death certificate, what difference does it make if they put New Hampshire or Florida? Well, New Hampshire is just plain wrong.
Do it Right
Genealogy and the searching of our family history should be done with care and pride. How many times have we relied on research published online or in a published family history only to discover the information was incorrect? It is frustrating when this happens. The potential to waste years of our research on such misleading information is certainly there, and how disappointed would we be to run out of time because we spent so much time on such a lead.
Most genealogy programs, including Family Tree Maker, offer both "Death Type" events as well as events showing a person's place of residence at any given time. We owe it to those who will come along after us to record information correctly. I think of all those published volumes I have used over the years, or the terrible disservice that Gustav Anjou did in "creating" family trees for the rich, trees that many today who are unfamiliar with him have based information on or incorporated into their own tree.
Stamp Out Misinformation
Instead of aiding the spread of misinformation through Web sites, message boards, and GEDCOM files that are shared among individuals or uploaded to something like World Family Tree, we should be doing our best to verify the information we find and sharing only accurate information.
In a perfect world all the information we find would be easily verifiable and vital records would go back to the 1200s. Of course, we know better. Sometimes misinformation creeps in because we have made a miscalculation during the evaluation phase of the records and resources we have on an individual. This is to be expected to a degree and I don't fault a researcher who has made such a mistake because we all do it.
I do, however, find fault in those who don't take the time to look at the information they have and make sure it is as accurate as possible. So many people today are downloading from one World Family Tree volume only to then create their own GEDCOM file to then share with others. While I do believe we need the strength we find in the numbers of researchers that are out there, I also feel we need to slow down some and look at what we are acquiring and then do our best to make it better.
This includes knowing where someone died. If we don't know it, we shouldn't put their place of residence in the death information fields. We should use the "Residence" fact, as it appears in Family Tree Maker, or the equivalent to list what we know for a certain. He lived there. List the year we know, the place, and then cite the source that we are using to make that claim.
I hope that others will see the importance of recording information accurately. Genealogy is a hobby, yes, but it is a hobby of facts and facts can not be noted with "howevers." Why does it matter? It matters because a fact is a fact, and trees are compiled, researched and based on facts.The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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