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One of my ancestors was named John White. He was a very early settler of Ohio, marrying Priscilla Devol in 1790 when Ohio was still part of the Northwest Territory. Here is a timeline with some relevant (and undisputed) facts...

1758 : John is born on October 20 in Pomfret, Connecticut

1778-1780 : John served in the Revolutionary War.

1789? : John arrives in the Northwest Territory.

1790 : John marries Priscilla Devol in Marietta.

1791 : John and wife are living in Fort Frye Garrison.

1791 : Sophia White is born in Marietta.

It is interesting (to me at least) that there is a fundamental question about this reasonably well documented man. Who are his parents? If one listens to the wisdom of the internet, as exhibited by the good people of ancestry.com, his parents were a couple named Jacob White and Dinah Cutler. In fact, in the public trees where John and his parents appear, there is a single exception (which will be described quite soon) who does not list this couple as his parents.

The single exception is a tree I submitted that is based on the work Genealogical and Personal History of the Upper Monongahela Valley, Volume 3 by the professional historian, James Morton Callahan. In this book, we have the following snippet...

Another Possibility?

Further along it becomes quite clear that John (4) is the John White we are interested in. It mentioned his marriage to Priscilla Devol and Sophia being born. However the parents of John given here are John (3) and Unknown.

Normally, when faced with a choice between a professional and the internet, I'd go with the professional every time. Indeed, after digging a little further we get a little more insight. The Barbour Collection of Connecticut Town Birth Records (pre-1870) lists a John White being born in Pomfret to Jacob and Dinah, but on October 21, 1762, not October 20, 1758. Given that the 1758 is clearly legible on our John White's gravestone, and that John White is a common enough name that even a small town can have two of them born a few years apart, my guess is that the historian is right, but I'd like to hear other opinions on this.

Boiling this down to one question... Given all of the information posted, should I go with the professional or with the internet?

Update: Here's a summary of the facts I have.

  • The Barbour Collection contains a record of a John White being born to Jacob White and Dinah Cutler in Pomfret, CT on October 21, 1762.

  • The same collection contains no records of a John White being born in Pomfret on October 20, 1758. (Subquestion : How complete are these records for that time period? This is rhetorical and not meant to be answered here...)

  • John White was a Revolutionary Soldier. (Rhetorical subquestions: Would a teenager have been allowed to participate in the war? Could he have changed his stated birthday in order to join the army?)

  • John White had an "uncle" named Amos Grosvenor. The Barbour Collection has an Amos from Pomfret marrying a Mary Hutchins in 1755 (and no other marriages for said Amos). If he is really John's uncle, this would seem to eliminate the Jacob/Dinah possibility.

All in all, I think the best way to resolve this would be to investigate the Amos Grosvenor link more thoroughly.

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Q: Given all of the information posted, should I go with the professional or with the internet?

My personal preference is to do the work myself, rather than "going with" the conclusions that someone else has made.

Whether someone has a (printed) published work, or an online family tree, my first follow-up question to any assertion in their work is exactly the same: what are the sources that the researcher consulted before coming to this conclusion?

In the USA, some researchers choose to work to the Genealogical Proof Standard used by the Board of Certification for Genealogist, which has five elements:

  • a reasonably exhaustive search
  • complete and accurate source citations
  • analysis and correlation of the collected information
  • resolution of any conflicting evidence
  • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion

The FamilySearch Research Wiki article on the Genealogical Proof Standard stresses the important concept that

Any proof statement is subject to re-evaluation when new evidence arises.

The conclusions of other genealogists and historians, whether professional or amateur, are not evidence. Even if I were talking about a point of history with a historian whose work I esteemed and generally found trustworthy, I would still ask him or her what the evidence was.

Elizabeth Shown Mills' blog post Using Evidence—A Four-Step Process expresses the process of gathering evidence and analyzing evidence like this:

  1. Gather all available information on the subject, carefully documenting each individual assertion.
  2. Select reliable evidence by analyzing each piece of information for credibility and relevance to the issue at hand.
  3. Correlate all pieces of evidence against each other, contrasting and comparing in order to define substantive patterns.
  4. Make a reliable decision based upon a skillful weighing of all evidence—recognizing that the whole is usually greater than the mere sum of its parts.

NARA's Document Analysis Worksheets were designed and developed by the Education Staff of the National Archives and Records Administration, intended for use by teachers in classrooms. But writing out a similar analysis of the document -- noting the date the document was created, who made the record, the reasons why it was created, etc. -- can be useful as part of the analysis process.

There's just no substitute for looking at the evidence. Sometimes we can form a research plan based on a single piece of evidence, e.g. a single record from the Barbour collection. But a single piece of evidence isn't proof of anything, and the unsourced conclusions of other researchers aren't proof, either.

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Not to belabor what's already been stated, but unsourced Internet trees are useful only as hints for tracking down actual documentation, and don't hold up as sources.

As a specific example, I found about 20 trees on Ancestry.com that listed the parents of Lydia (Wynn) Bittner, wife of Aaron Bittner, all apparently based on a census "best match". Funny thing is, she died in 1906, and there's a death certificate on file for her, which apparently nobody (not even her purported descendants) ever bothered to consult. It lists different parents, and a different birthplace, from all the unsourced trees. This is a far simpler scenario than pre-Revolutionary War records, it's just ordering a death certificate, but apparently across 20 public trees on Ancestry, nobody made even that small effort.

I think it's also worth noting that dates of birth on headstones are occasionally provably wrong (as well as ages, even when they're listed in years, months and days). In the cases I've seen, there isn't a clear tendency for it to be later rather than earlier than the proved date. One of my gg-grandfather's headstones even has the DOD off by a year. I'm not certain, but I don't think I've seen a case where a fully-qualified DOB/DOD pair was inaccurate. Anyone else?

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From my own research, I've found that family trees at ancestry.com often just copy the information from another, and thus the evidence looks conclusive. I've resolved that by independently verifying sources.

On the other hand, I've also found that information contained in published material, or even official documents, can also be inaccurate.

Conclusion: verify as much as you can. If you are satisfied with the source material, it doesn't matter whether it comes from an ancestry.com member or an "expert".

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  • I've definitely found many instances of the copy and paste treatment on ancestry. I've even been guilty of it myself on occasion. ;-) My efforts now are to disprove the Jacob/Dinah hypothesis. I know that this does not prove the historian's conclusions, but it's a start. The Amos Grosvenor link looks promising. – DaveBlackston Aug 17 '14 at 18:34

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