Using sources that may be dodgy

I started this train of thought in my last post, re: ACGS Yearbooks. Here’s a little more.

The perpetual problem in family history research is that so many of the available narratives are unreliable–sometimes intentionally so, more often because the authors and compilers haven’t exercised a very high standard of evidence analysis. Often no distinction is made between what has been proven and what is believed, and enthusiasm counts for more than accuracy. It hardly matters whether you’re looking at your grandmother’s genealogical notes, a magazine article about a local historical site, or the efforts of an amateur historian–rarely will such sources prove entirely sound.

People make mistakes. (About half the family trees I’ve seen on give the wrong name for the father of John S. Magruder. His father was Nathaniel; his uncle was Nathan. Read Nathaniel’s will if you don’t believe me.)

People hide secrets. (Is the birthdate in a family Bible accurate? Or does it hide an out-of-wedlock conception?)

People find one record and stop looking. (The wife’s not in the will, therefore the wife was deceased.)

People assume public records are accurate. (Try comparing ages for one person across 2 or 3 19th-century census records!)

People look for evidence to confirm what they already believe, or want to be true, ignoring gaps and contradictions. (Among those associated with a particular family, I’m looking for African-Americans named Basil Mullin, so I want to believe a slave named Basil, with no surname given, must be another Mullin.)

People like heroes, villains, and good stories. (We’d like it if Roderick McGregor had freed all his slaves in his will. Sadly, he didn’t.)

That’s the reality, so what should we do? The question is not whether to use sources that may be unreliable–often they are our only starting point. The question is how to use them. And the answer is twofold: cautiously and proactively.

Here’s an example from my own research.

In the 1917 Year Book of the American Clan Gregor Society, Caleb Clarke Magruder, Jr., published a 26-page article titled “Nathaniel Magruder of ‘Dunblane’,” in which he summarized and quoted from the wills and estate records of Nathaniel Magruder (d.1786) and a large number of his descendants. C.C. Magruder was one of the better researchers among the early ACGS writers, and I am interested in this particular family, so I am quite happy to have this article. It has pointed the way toward several interesting lines of inquiry, clarified some family relationships about which I was hazy, and given me a large panorama of the family’s property-transference, slave-owning, and other matters.

But that’s not the same as accepting C.C. Magruder as the final word. Here’s where caution and proactive research come in.

I had already read a few of the wills he quotes, so I spotted one large error right away: he says Roderick McGregor did free all his slaves, when in fact he freed only one family. This is very clear in the will and in the estate inventories. (I’ll refrain from theorizing how this mistake could be made, but there it is; and others have quoted it as authoritative.) This alerted me to treat the article with caution, but you shouldn’t need any special red flags. You should always follow up with your own legwork. (See Will of Roderick McGregor and related pages, for images and transcriptions.)

I discovered another error quite by chance… or, rather, by casting a wide net. On subjects that interest me, I read every published source I can find, and I often start with the index. That’s how I discovered–in Letitia Woods  Brown’s Free Negroes in the District of Columbia 1790-1846–that one Elizabeth Magruder made her will in the District in 1827, including detailed provisions regarding her slaves. When I first found that information, I didn’t know who this particular Elizabeth Magruder was. C.C. Magruder’s article clued me in that she was Nathaniel Magruder’s unmarried daughter (and John S. Magruder’s sister). Why Elizabeth made her will in Washington, D.C., despite the fact that her legal and apparent residence was the family plantation, Dunblane, in Prince George’s County, may be explained by the will itself: her executor and all her heirs are found in the family of one of her sisters, a D.C. resident. Another lesson here: check other jurisdictions, wherever your target has relations, business interests, or property. (See Will of Elizabeth Magruder and related pages, for the rest of the story.)

The last issue I’ll talk about took a while to pin down. Because Roderick McGregor’s wife, Ann, is not mentioned  in his will, C.C. Magruder states that  she predeceased him. It’s a perfectly reasonable assumption in a time when divorce was so extremely rare. But once all the clues are assembled, it seems very probable that Roderick and his wife Ann were legally separated or divorced at the time of Roderick’s death. I picked up this trail in the 1850 census, which shows Roderick living alone and Ann living with a woman who is likely her mother. It took me a while to feel  confident that this Ann McGregor was Roderick’s wife–I think I first drew the connection from the genealogy in Sue Emerson’s Magruders in America. Sue doesn’t give sources, so at that stage I had to call it a working hypothesis and keep digging. Eventually, I found Ann McGregor’s will, from 1871, which confirmed her identity. My last confirmation came from details in an 1850s land record. Again, the lesson is: cast a wide net. Search every category of records you can reasonably reach, for any and all information about your target. (See Interrelations page in the Magruder-McGregor pages, for details of this story.)

One way to contextualize any article you are reading is to consider what sources were and were not consulted. C.C. Magruder’s article on Nathaniel was based primarily on a survey of wills in Prince George’s County and the District of Columbia. You immediately know that you can and should look for other categories of records to confirm and expand the information.

And then, since we are people, too, and prey to all the mistakes I listed at the top of this post… distinguish carefully between what you can prove and what you believe to be true, and then be thorough and transparent in documenting and revealing your sources, allowing others to judge how firm the basis for that belief might be. It is useful to read each other’s theories; it is the opposite of useful to read a theory presented as if it were fact.

No time to do all this? Fine, just practice that very last piece of advice, letting the rest of us know that (so far) your only source is an uncorroborated article or family tree, and more work remains to be done.

In Evidence Explained, in the chapter on “Fundamentals of Evidence Analysis,” Barbara Shown Mills offers 6 descending “Levels of Confidence” that a conscientious researcher can communicate to readers.

Certainly: no reasonable doubt, sound and adequate evidence

Probably: more likely than not, good evidence but not quite certain

Possibly: some evidence, but far from proved

Likely: enough evidence that the odds are in its favor

Apparently: you’ve formed an impression but not tested it

Perhaps: you think an idea is plausible, but have not tested it

This is a useful vocabulary, whether or not we all conform to Mills’ exact  distinctions. It allows us to share what we’ve found without making too-large claims about what our research “proves.”

American Clan Gregor Society Yearbooks…& how to use them

You may be surprised to find a link to the ACGS Yearbooks, given that I have confessed my lack of belief in Alexander Magruder’s Clan Gregor origins; but the ACGS was founded by Magruders and Magruders still make up a large portion of its membership, so it follows that the yearbooks are full of information by and about Magruders.

Unlike recent yearbooks, which focus on activities in the present, the early yearbooks were full of historical articles, family histories, memorials to individual ancestors, transcriptions of wills, and the like. All are available as PDFs from the ACGS Library, now in the care of Special Collections at the Langsdale Library of the University of Baltimore.

Use these articles with caution! The authors were not professional historians or genealogists. Some were careful and reasonably skilled, others appallingly bad on both counts, and nearly all the articles contain errors of omission if not outright wrong “facts.” In these old publications, legend and pure speculation enjoy equal status with research. For most, the goal was celebration of a heritage, not its verification.

Check the evidence, corroborate, and correlate. Look for original records and for multiple sources.

Be particularly cautious when you notice that the writers cite each other as authorities. Most of the historical articles were penned by three or four men, who are content to rely on each other without risking any further inquiry. These guys were friends and colleagues, working together to establish a historical grounding for the ACGS. You can’t blame them for accepting each other’s word–but you don’t have to.

For example, you may be excited to see that both Mr. A and Mr. B make the same claim about such-and-such…then find, on closer scrutiny, that Mr. B’s authority is Mr. A. So all you have, after all, in Mr. A’s assertion, for which he offers no evidence.

Phrases like “it is traditional” also should set off alarm bells. Most assertions that follow that phrase will turn out to have no basis in the historical record, and some will turn out to have no basis in oral history either. Such phrases can be used to cloak speculation in an air of authority.

Ask where the “tradition” comes from and who has handed it down.

The prime example for us, of course, is the “tradition” that Magruders/McGruders were part of Clan Gregor, which has flourished among American Magruders for around 200 years but is unknown to McGruders in Scotland. The idea was introduced to Scottish MacGregors in the 20th century and many have accepted it, but neither the historical record nor DNA has thus far supported it. Alas!

So where did this belief come from? When, where, and why did 19th c. Magruders adopt this belief? That’s worth finding out.

Don’t be intimidated by sources that sound antique and grand. Try a web search to find out the exact nature of these old books. Who wrote them? Who published them? For what audience and for what gain? Look for critical views and academic assessments. Dare to read what modern historians have to say on the same subjects.

For example, Sir Robert Douglas’ Baronage of Scotland (1798) was taken as authoritative by 19th and early 20th c. researchers and enthusiasts. Now available on line, it is offered by its editors as a sociological document–a snapshot of the beliefs of its day–and, at best, only a starting point for research. The Clan Gregor entry, often cited in support of the most grandiose claims about the clan chiefs’ genealogy, has been described by historian Martin MacGregor as “a work of sustained fiction.”

In short, be skeptical of claims that are not backed up by citations of sources. Be proactive in following up on those sources. Compare and correlate different sources, making sure they are independent of each other–that is, not all relying on the same prior source. On some questions, you may never have a hard and fast proven fact, but multiple independent sources that suggest the same conclusion will give you far more certainty than one self-confident writer who offers no evidence for his or her claims.

And above all, enjoy the hunt!

Evidence Explained

Yet historical truths are rarely rooted in either shortcuts or comfort.

–Elizabeth Shown Mills

I guess this is the ultimate nerd moment: excitement over Elizabeth Shown Mills’ 800-page bible of accountability: Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Not being a professional historian, I wasn’t familiar with this book until I read about it on Michael Hait’s blog, at which point I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

My practice on this web site may fall a bit short of her exacting and exhaustive standard of documentation, but many things are becoming clearer thanks to Mills’ lucid explanations of not only how to record your sources but why. As she says in the Foreword:

As students, when we were introduced to research principles, we may have been told that identifying sources is important for two reasons. First, we provide “proof” for what we write. Second, we enable others to find what we have used. Both purposes are valid, but they miss the most critical point of all:

We identify our sources–and their strengths and weaknesses–so we can reach the most reliable conclusions. (10)

In the next 700+ pages, she walks us through the documentation of every imaginable kind of source, from a quilt to a videogame. Not interested only in the “output” of a clear and useful footnote or bibliography, Mills starts with the “input”–the steps we must take while researching to record and evaluate each source…and to maintain the flexibility to re-evaluate it later on, as our knowledge and range of contexts grow.

She also reminds us that “family-history standards require a higher level of proof than does most litigation” (18) and in fact can accept no margin of error at all, because “Correct identification is the foundation upon which all else rests.” (19)

If you’ve never had a systematic introduction to research, this book is your crash course. If you’ve been over all this stuff before, but don’t always remember how to apply it, here is your right-hand helper. Far more than a set of templates–though plenty of those are provided–this book is a thorough course on the fundamentals of sound research and evidence analysis.

For someone like me, moonlighting out of my own field, it’s a very powerful torch.