Published genealogies can provide us with lots of clues. Since we don't really know how good the author was with his or her research, it is always incumbent on us to personally research, verify, and corroborate what is stated. If the author has included source citations for original materials and facts, it is easier for us to personally track down the sources, thoroughly read and understand them in location and time context, and to analyze the facts presented.
Not every published genealogy is written in such a scholarly manner. There may be omissions of critical facts, mis-communication of others, and the sharing of unprovable hearsay that can muddy the truth.
About 20 years ago I wrote a magazine article about published genealogies, and I received a lot of great email. Most of it was complimentary, a lot shared personal experiences, and some complained about genealogy data published in any format. We all become ecstatic over the find of published and unpublished material. If you are a writer like me, an indexer, a transcriber, an extractor, or an abstractor, you come to appreciate high quality original source materials and always want to examine them for yourself.
As more information becomes available to us, it is imperative to review every word in its entirety. I received several E-mails from people who asserted that the reason for inserting incorrect data was so that they could identify whether their own material was being used by someone else. One man went so far as to proudly recount that he only does this with children who died in infancy. In effect, he stated that he adds or changes middle initials for these children because it supposedly doesn't make any difference because they didn't marry or produce any offspring anyway, so nobody will be researching a direct line. Another man wrote to say that he did the same thing or makes a change to "the date of death by one day because nobody cares." In both cases, these men stated that they wanted to protect the copyright on their research data.
One woman wrote to tell me that she has "a family member from another line who has blatantly been falsifying [information] and has even admitted it in e-mails to some of the family. He said all family historians put markers in their work so they will recognize [sic] it if someone else uses it. He also has been threatening some of the family with lawsuits if they use his work."
I would strongly disagree with that man's statement, and with those of other writers. This practice is not only nothing about which they should be proud, I find it downright unethical and detestable. While they may feel there's nothing wrong with altering the facts about a child who died in infancy, the repercussions to other researchers who encounter and perhaps reference their work can be decidedly negative.
The Consequences for Other Researchers
Pretend for a few minutes that you are a researcher seeking evidence concerning a family line about which you know little. Let's use a fictional example. Perhaps it is that of your great-grandfather, John Jones -- a somewhat common name -- born in 1849. You know his father's name was James Thomas Jones but you do not know his mother's name. You have been told that your great-grandfather had an older brother who died quite young who was named after their father. You think that they lived in Fairfax County, Virginia. These are all the “facts” of which you aware. Your next research step is to examine the 1850 Federal census for Fairfax County. Let's assume that the index to that census shows seven heads of households named James Jones, none of which show any middle initial. Which family is that of your ancestor? If what you have been told is that your great-grandfather's older brother was named for their father, you would probably search each household for a young male child, born before 1849, whose name was listed as 'James Jones' or 'James Thomas Jones" or "James T. Jones" or "Jim Jones" or Jimmy Jones" or "J. T. Jones" or whatever. You would look for all variations with an emphasis on a child named for his father. Don’t forget nicknames of “Johnny” or “Tommy” or even the name “Junior”. You find there are three households with children named James Jones and John Jones. You still don't know which your set of ancestors is.
You subsequently find a public family tree at a Web site that shows a Jones family in Fairfax County, Virginia, with a father named James T. Jones, a mother named Mary W. Jones, and two sons, James W. Jones and John Jones, and a daughter, Mary Jones. The dates look about right, and you further learn from the tree that James W. Jones died in 1852. You Find A Grave in Failfax County and find a burial for a John T. Jones who died in 1852. Since the middle initial in Find A Grave differs from that in the online, public family tree, you may believe that these are not the same individual. The son’s forename is correct, but that middle initial is wrong. Could this be the right family but some unexplainable discrepancy? And here's a daughter born later about whom you know nothing.
Unfortunately, the researcher who encounters this informational inconsistency may take one of at least three paths:
1) He/she may search further for additional evidence to corroborate or refute the hypothesis that this is their family line.
2) He/she may abandon this family group, deciding that young James' middle initial and the presence of a heretofore unknown female child rules this household ineligible to be their family.
3) He/she may return to the 1850 census and come to the conclusion that another household is a more appropriate avenue of inquiry.
In all three cases, the researcher is confounded, confused and sidetracked in their research. In a worst-case scenario, a less tenacious researcher may decide that this is a dead-end line and stop researching. What would you do? The uncertainly created by such a difference in something as supposedly simple as a name may make you move on, leaving you with a hole in your research – a dreaded brick wall. I’ll wager, though. that a nagging feeling will persist that causes you to return to this same avenue of research again and again.
What if all this confusion and extra work was caused by someone who, in the interest of supposedly 'protecting' his or her work, inserted or altered data?
As a good genealogical researcher, it is always important to maintain a healthy skepticism of all the evidentiary material you encounters, even in original documents where any type of spelling errors or omissions are made. When you find contradictory information, always look for other sources, especially ones that are separate and independent from the material in question. Don't automatically discard contradictory information. Retain it in a "might be related" file for future reference when you find other sources. And if you find those wrong initials and date discrepancies, remember that someone may have purposely altered the data for his or her own purposes. It's up to you to find the truth and document your family tree with as much accuracy as possible.