Forgive us our sins…

This blog posting is long overdue — both in terms of the lapse of time but also in the significance of its message to readers. While it does not directly relate to any of our Appalachian pioneer family ties, I sincerely hope it will be of value to all of us “cousins”!

Millions of Americans have dabbled in matters of family research in this, the era of the internet. We have information — good and bad, reliable and farcical, documented and traditional — at our fingertips. And we have wonderful tools in the form of our computers, sophisticated genealogical database software, online repositories of data, images, and books. For-profit companies such as, MyHeritage, the DNA testing companies, and others fill the airwaves with advertisements for their services, teasing us with the mysteries of our lineages. Similarly, not-for-profit entities such as FamilySearch (my personal favorite “go-to” place), regional public libraries, universities, and organizations such as the DAR and SAR provide a cornucopia of data.

It is enough to totally bedazzle a “newbie” — or even an “old hand”. And it frequently does! I know, because I too have been like the moth drawn far too close to the candle’s flame…

But sometimes wealth — not just in the form of money, but in overabundance of information as well — can make us greedy. And careless. And arrogant. And just plain blind to common sense.

Much has been said, over the last few months, about the glut of “fake news” and the public’s gullible thirst to drink from any poisoned tap offering whichever particular flavor will satisfy our fickle tastes of the moment.

My intent here is not to become “political” — rather, I want to use that current debate to set a context for my own “MEA CULPA”. When I first envisioned, some twenty years ago, the possibility of utilizing technology to build a “master database” of the pioneering families of the Appalachian highlands, I had no clue how large that web could be. Nor could I imagine the hunger for information, and the willingness to share, that existed among thousands of “cousins” whose family lines may have intersected with my own.

Today my Highland HomePage — that mass of information comprising some 119,000 individual records and 43,000 family units — stands as evidence of the breadth of information that can be compiled through online sharing. And I am extremely grateful for the cooperation and generosity of everyone who helps make it possible.

But this brings me to my main point — and my personal confession and act of contrition…

More is not always better — it’s just more! Information, even when provided by friends and loved ones whom we trust, is not always perfect. It can sometimes be self-contradictory, or it can be just plain foolish!

An example… Even in my own most careful searches of public records, such as census enumerations, I can occasionally confuse households and link children to the wrong parents. Consider a census that shows William Smith, b. 1870, in the household of John (b. 1848) and Mary [Jones] Smith (b. 1852). Even in a relatively small, remote portion of Appalachia, the odds are very good that there are more than a single household in which these names and dates would be good approximate matches. As a result, we can occasionally get families “crosslinked”.  As the saying goes:  “Stuff happens!”

When intermarriages between two families were frequent due to geographical proximity and personal alliances — and when families also used naming patterns in which children were named for uncles or aunts over and over through multiple generations — it is sometimes well-nigh impossible to cut through the ambiguities, even though written “public records” are the sources of documentation.

And I have also received — and passed on — the mistakes of others, even when they have been ridiculous enough to posit that a child was born a century before his/her parents! In my eagerness to merge a batch of a thousand new “cousins” — family research that someone else generously offered to share — I have in good faith passed along bogus info in the mix.

I have been guilty of these and many other sins — despite my best efforts to remain blameless. And I bet you have, too! In that spirit, I hope that you will be kind and gentle when you point out my errors. Calling me stupid — and it has happened — or questioning my motives in distributing “false” information, or whatever, is no way to establish a dialog that will further our mutual search for the truths of our roots and our families.

In this new year of 2017, I am redoubling my efforts to weed out errors of my own commission or omission, and to cut down the background noise along the way. If you wish to join in that effort, pass this message along to your own network of fellow researchers with best wishes for true discoveries!