I am sure there is a term or phrase for this sort of publication-- but unfortunately I don't know the correct one!

I have used/referred to "Christopher Noble of Portsmouth, N.H. and some of his descendants" (ASIN B0007185P4, 1987) before, and am thus aware of some of it's inaccuracies (or, perhaps, omissions might be more accurate).

I am now researching another part of my heritage, and am searching for the parents of Lucy Pratt Stowell b approx. 1813 in Hingham or Weymouth, Massachusetts.

Her death record lists Stephen Stowell and Lucy (Pratt?) as her parents; however, I cannot turn up a birth record for her (searching online only so far); other family trees I see note Noah Stowell and Lucy Pratt as her parents. This seems to originate with "STOWELL GENEALOGY: A RECORD OF THE DESCENDANTS OF SAMUEL STOWELL OF HINGHAM, MASS.", as I cannot find corresponding birth records.

Pro's of this parentage: Lucy Pratt as mother, naming pattern. Cons: This would make Noah as her father approximately 50 when she was born, Stephen was listed as her father, not Lucy.

I am also suspicious as I can find birth records for all of the other children listed as this couples children, but not Lucy. I have tried alternate birthdate for her, but to no avail.

Additionally, in referring to "History of the Town of Hingham, Massachusetts",
I see Noah and Lucy as parents of several children (no Lucy Pratt Stowell), including a Stephen, w. name Mary. The wife not born until 1800 and therefore unlikely a mother to my Lucy Pratt Stowell, but possibly this Stephen could be the father of an illegitimate Lucy? To make things more confusing this stephen is not shown as having any children in the Stowell Genealogy book.

My hypotheses:

(a) Noah WAS her father, and the incorrect information was given at death.

(b) Noah was NOT her father, but she was the illegitimate child of one of his children/a member of this family.

Questions:

  1. Can I/should I take/assume the Stowell Genealogy book is accurate?
  2. How might I go about researching the possible illegitimacy aspect (we have a long history of sex-out-of-wedlock in this family, so it is definitely possible; Lucy's own daughter was married at about 14, while pregnant)
  3. Short of visiting the East Bridgewater, Weymouth, and/or Hingham libraries/town records, what other hypotheses might there be to Lucy's origins, and how might I go about researching them? (I start with censuses and birth records, but have read East Bridgewater town proceedings to get a sense of why/how Lucy's husband and father-in-law went bankrupt and corresponding disposition of assets, to give some context re what avenues I've explored/am experienced with).
  • 1
    Welcome to G&FH.SE, I edited the question a bit to make it a bit easier to follow as well as added links to some of the resources you mentioned. I am still having a bit of trouble though following it in the context of a single question as it could go many directions (as your question does). Could you refine this question to have a single answer and then maybe break it up into separate questions as I see 3-5 questions in it? – CRSouser May 21 '15 at 20:10
  • 1
    Hello and likewise welcome to G&FH.SE! I also encourage you to break this question up and ask each component as a separate question. Some of our community members like to give an overview of the records consulted for the family in one question, and then link back to that question so they don't have to repeat themselves. You can learn more about the Stack Exchange format by visiting the help center and by taking the tour of G&FH.SE. Both are available via the help link on the top navigation bar. – Jan Murphy May 21 '15 at 20:32
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    Shall we start by addressing the question which is now #1 in the list, about the accuracy of authored family biographies/genealogies? – Jan Murphy May 21 '15 at 20:37
  • I agree with CRSouser and JanMurphy that researching the illegitimacy aspect is best asked as a new question. You can use a link to this Q&A as a starting reference in the new question. – PolyGeo May 21 '15 at 21:52
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    Searching for the birth record is also worthy of a new question. I see you earned a badge for taking the Tour -- well done! – Jan Murphy May 21 '15 at 22:29

How do we evaluate the published work of other genealogists? That's a very good question, whether we are talking about a book publication, or someone's online tree on services such as Ancestry or RootsWeb or others which allow the publication of genealogies that are owned by one individual.

One place to turn for an answer is the Board for Certification of Genealogists. Their website describes their manual, Genealogy Standards, as follows:

its eighty-three standards contribute to the level of credibility in genealogy called the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS).

The five elements of the GPS are:

  1. a reasonably exhaustive search;
  2. complete and accurate source citations;
  3. analysis and correlation of the collected information;
  4. resolution of any conflicting evidence; and
  5. a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.

Another metric we can use to judge these works and other evidence is Elizabeth Shown Mills' Evidence Analysis Process Map found in her book Evidence Explained -- you can view it on her website, on this page: QuickLesson 17: The Evidence Analysis Process Map. (Copy archived on 10 May 2018 by the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.)

The Process Map has 9 elements arranged in three columns, and sometimes you'll see people refer to it by the nickname "the 3 x 3".

Are the sources:

  • Original (e.g. the record at the first time it was written)
  • Derivative (e.g. someone's index of town records)
  • Authored (a local town history)

Is the information:

  • Primary (firsthand knowledge)
  • Secondary (secondhand knowledge)
  • Undetermined (where we can't tell or it isn't known)

Is the evidence:

  • Direct (does it answer the question you have about the person)
  • Indirect (information which does not directly answer your question, but can be combined with other information to prove your case)
  • Negative (the absence of information which should be there -- not to be confused with negative findings, which might simply be that we didn't search well enough or that something was poorly indexed)

Using these as our yardsticks, can we tell how valid the work might be? Does the author give us a list of sources that were consulted? Is there enough transparency so you can follow along, look at the sources consulted, and evaluate the information for yourself?

Example One: the famous family history

Delmar Rial Lowell wrote a 2-volume genealogy, The Historic Genealogy of the Lowells of America from 1639 to 1899. This authored work was researched by Lowell and his father over twenty-five years, and is mostly un-sourced, although there are some references scattered through out the text. To give you an idea of the scope of the problem -- there are over 2000 individuals listed in the book. A search for "town records" has 14 results. Not all collections of town records will say "town records" in the title, but that gives you a rough idea of how many of the 2000+ people have a note next to their entry, saying which town's records the dates came from.

It is difficult for me to say how accurate this two-volume history is as a whole, when it is the result of 25 years of research, and contains thousands of individuals. Even if we are told that Rev. Lowell and his father had found direct evidence from primary records for every connection in the book, we still don't know if that information was from original records or from derivatives (such as copies of the original records).

The brute-force way to answer the question of how accurate his books are would be to re-do all 25 years of his research myself -- we have no proof statements for any of the individuals. I could get a general idea of how well-regarded the book is by looking for book reviews, or by seeing how many times his book was cited by other genealogists. But any time you count citations, there is an inherent bias towards older published works, simply because they've been around longer and have had more chance to be looked at than more recent books. So you can't just say "more people cite this work so it must be good".

However, it is easier to answer the question you really want to know, which is how accurate the information is for the specific persons / relationships you are trying to establish (a much smaller and easier-to-manage problem than evaluating the accuracy of the entire book).

If you can't answer how the author knows a particular piece of information in their published genealogy, you don't know the quality of the information, so you can't answer how accurate the information might be. If the authors don't cite their sources, we can only use these published works as clues to what original records might exist.

Check your authored genealogies for source lists, bibliographies, footnotes, and other clues that might give an indication of what types of records they looked at. Once you find the original records, derivative works, or other authored works, you can sometimes guess what they might have looked at.

Example Two: the Family Bible

Family Bibles often have records of births, marriages, and deaths. Look at the publication date of the Bible as a clue about when the entries might have been made. If the Bible was published in 1850, then you know that all the entries before 1850 must have been entered at a later date -- a birth which takes place in 1790 could not have been recorded in that Bible in 1790 because that Bible didn't physically exist yet. If all the entries in the Bible were written in the same handwriting, then it's possible that all of the entries date from the time of the most recent event. This seems obvious once it is pointed out to us, but it's easy to get lost in the excitement of finding the information, and skip over the step of examining the evidence.

A caution:

Let's say you hit the jackpot. You find an article in the NGS Quarterly by a well-respected, Board-Certified Genealogist, with a gorgeous proof statement that answers the very question you want to know. Are you home free?

No, because just like the Bible record I mentioned earlier, that article and proof statement are simply a snapshot of what that genealogist's analysis was at the time the article was written. So don't forget to look for follow-up articles and new evidence that might have been discovered since the article was written.

For a recent case study, see Hillary Clinton Family Tree a Wake-Up Call for Genealogy by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, where Megan explains how she found dozens of people had made a wrong identification in part of Hilary's tree.

Further reading:

  • Those Old pre-1900 Published Genealogies by Michael John Neill, posted on September 11, 2018, on his website RootDig.com.
  • For a modern work that corrects many of the errors is Delmar Rial Lowell's HGLA, see Scott C. Steward and Christopher C. Child (Newbury Street Press, 2011),The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts, the 2012 winner of the Donald Lines Jacobus Award, "established in 1972 to encourage sound scholarship in genealogical writing".
  • Is there a source discussing the dispute over the Delmar Lowell volume, (or should I set it as a question to the group)? I have a link to Percival, through the Gerrish line, but am unsure how much more can be claimed? – user2448131 Jul 7 '16 at 21:05
  • I don't know of any particular dispute over Delmar Lowell's work, but like any authored work which is mostly unsourced, it doesn't meet modern standards of genealogy. Are you planning to verify your own line, or just take his word for it? – Jan Murphy Jul 8 '16 at 0:55
  • I have other sources for the info up to Percival Lowell(Lowle), but didn't pursue any farther back. I had left myself a research note saying 'reported to have royal linage to Edward I through his mother. Lineages reported by Delmar Lowell's book through the Lowle line may be now discredited,' , so i stopped at that point. – user2448131 Jul 8 '16 at 1:19
  • I am still working on verifying the most recent generations in HGLA for our own line, so I haven't gone over the literature for Percival's period or earlier. – Jan Murphy Jul 8 '16 at 1:35
  • Look for worldcat.org/title/… in a library near you if your line goes through John (not Richard) Lowell. – Jan Murphy May 6 at 1:57

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