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Even optimists need a healthy dose of skepticism

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: July 11, 2013 at 10:30 PM

I'm a glass-half-full kind of person, which may seem at odds with my researcher side that believes if something could be misstated, misspelled, misinterpreted or misunderstood, then it probably was.

There are many ways information gets skewed as it passes from person to person or generation to generation.

If two people look at a handwritten document, beautiful at a glance for its cursive handwriting and curlique embellishments, they inevitably will disagree on the interpretation of multiple words.

Two individuals hearing the same conversation bring their own biases to their interpretation, coloring how they report the exchange to others.

If I were an English merchant hiring new German immigrants, chances are I wrote their names as I heard them. Some other official might have heard the name differently - and recorded it differently. Eventually, the poor fellow probably gave up and simplified his name.

He likely didn't come to America to remain German, so he might have Anglicized his name in order to fit better into the American culture.

What was a relative's frame of mind when he provided information for a loved one's death certificate? In his grief did he forget a maiden name, skew a date of birth?

A death certificate is proof only of the date, place and cause of death. A detached professional provides those critical details. All other information on the certificate are clues provided by a possibly stressed family member.

Someone once started a rumor that if a researcher can find three pieces of evidence pointing toward the same information then it is proven. That's bunk.

Each piece of evidence must be assessed, analyzed and weighed for its own validity. Researchers must ask questions such as, "How does this person know this - what was his access to the details?" We must ask if he had a reason to lie, distort, embellish, or minimize his story. Could he profit from fabricating details? Was his participation in an event such that he wanted to distance or minimize his part in it? And what was the ability of the person relating information to understand what he saw or heard?

If you put siblings together and ask them about a shared event, the older ones will have one perspective while younger children will have quite different memories. The perceptions aren't good or bad, just different. Including both memories into a family story can give it depth and breadth, as long as the differences are explained or resolved.

A tentative and perhaps negative approach to research can serve our descendants well. A wise genealogist seeks original sources (or digitized and microfilmed derivatives) rather than settle for abstracts, transcripts, or authored works based on the originals. We need to see documents and hear stories close to the original event so that perceptions and interpretation aren't as strong as at later stages of reproduction.

Child of No One

An unacknowledged illegitimate child in the family may be the reason pieces of the family puzzle don't "fit." Join me Saturday at the Pinellas County Genealogical Society's monthly meeting for "Child of No One: The Law and Your Illegitimate Ancestor." I'll give a historical perspective on how the courts have treated the matter through the years and how families were affected.

The meeting is 11 a.m. at the Jenkins auditorium at the Largo Public Library, 120 Central Park Drive, Largo.

Cherokee Indian program

At 9:30 a.m. Friday, Brandon Genealogy & History Society president Scott Peeler Jr. will present a program on Cherokee Indians to the University of South Florida's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute Genealogy Interest Group.

The group will meet at the Lake Magdalene United Methodist Church, 2901 W. Fletcher Ave., Tampa.

The Brandon Society's meetings are free and open to the public. Membership ($30/year or $75/three years) provides registration privileges for computer classes, liberal arts study groups, and other special interest groups (such as conversational Spanish). Membership also entitles individuals to day trips, socials and a quarterly newsletter.

For information about the group call Nancy Sjoberg at (813) 969-0908 or e-mail trevwund@gmail.com.


Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Getaway, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa, FL 33606 or stmoody0720@mac.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist wit

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