The Telephone Game

We’ve all played it. As kids, we do it on purpose, we are sat in a circle with some camp counsellor or teacher, and we play the game, and it’s funny. We start off with something like “monkeys like bananas” and end up with “My Mom’s keys are always lost.”

As adults we do it all the time, now whether the original message gets changed on purpose or because as adults we’re all scatterbrained, who knows, and sometimes its funny and sometimes its disastrous.

In the family history game, however, I think we score off the charts in the telephone game.

Here’s an example:

When I first starting working on my own family history, a lot longer ago than I care to admit, I started off with quite an accumulation of breadcrumbs that I thought were absolutely solid kernels to build on. Turns out eating one of those breadcrumbs sometimes led to solid information, but more often than not was like biting into a piece of fairy bread and waking up 50 years later in a totally different place.

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Online Genealogy Research – Perils and Potentials

When I started researching our family history, online research was really just beginning to be a viable resource. The outlets were mostly through a few independent sites that I typically found via clicking travels down long and winding roads….some of those resources still exist of course (Cyndi’s List still being a strong presence–see the link on my Resources page). One of my major sources in the beginning was forums and newsgroups which connected me to other genealogists in locations far afield from me, and the generosity of fellow researchers hasn’t changed. I still find it amazing that there are so many of us out there, willing to share personal archives or even do a little local legwork and to help further another researcher’s quest. I hope that never changes. The possibilities out there are endless, and valuable.

Since then those first resources have grown exponentially, and others have joined the ranks. More and more countries are taking on the challenge of digitizing original documents, and sites like, of which I am a member, provide a huge watershed of this information that is constantly updating. There are so many brick walls of research that have been broken down by what is now available on line.

The perils, of course, are in running too far down the road with information that is not corroborated with direct evidence and primary sources.  

For example, I share my trees online for a few reasons. It enables easier access to other members of my family to see how the history is being filled in, but it also creates opportunities to find relatives that I might not have known about, and who have also been digging deep into our common roots. I have had my eyes opened to my own family’s stories that I had feared were lost as we continue to say goodbye to family from our older generations, and have been so grateful to find these new connections.

That said, the number of times I have seen that someone has pulled from my information thinking that we are connected when we are not is a bit sad to see. I have often sent emails to folks that have believed they are connected to our line, to share information to help steer them in the right direction. As an example, if I can see that their branch settled in a geographical location that is not connected to our branch, I will do my best to share with them the info I have so that they do not spend time working on a fruitless research line.

But it does surprise me when I see this happen. Not all of the information I have gathered shows up on a shared tree, but enough does with respect to names, locations, and time periods. Enough, at least, to give a quick visual confirmation if the possibility of connection is truly there.

I’ve also gotten a few emails from folks that feel they have information I need for my tree that they state is validated by a publication that they have found. Often this is a self published history. Sometimes these publications can truly be a wealth of information, but if they do not cite primary sources, please tread carefully!

Solid, corroborated genealogy research requires an understanding of some key concepts.

First you have direct evidence and indirect evidence. Direct evidence is a specific document that proves a specific set of data. For example, a birth certificate will provide date of birth, location of birth, and parent’s names. Indirect evidence (or circumstantial evidence) is information that can allow for an interpretation. For example, some census reports will provide age in years rather than a birthdate. You cannot simply take that age, subtract it from the year of the census and consider that a solid date of birth, however it may allow you to narrow down a time period during which a person was born. (Of course, bear in mind that a person’s birthdate often changes significantly on consecutive census reports as the information is not always given directly by the individual in question to the census taker.)

Further, there are also the concepts of primary sources and secondary sources. Examples of primary sources: vital records and eyewitness testimony taken recent to the time of the event. Examples of secondary sources: information that has been compiled or copied from other sources, or interviews about events long after the occurrence.

The value of indirect evidence and secondary sources should not be underestimated, but time should be taken to corroborate this information with direct evidence and primary sources.  Taking the time to make these validations early on will save a lot of heartache later.
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What would YOU like to know?

I’ve been addicted to family research — my own and others — for 18 years.  I have created numerous questionnaires to use when first beginning work with a client.  I think that the questionnaire I have developed is….close.  So, I am curious – whether you are a fellow researcher, or someone looking for help with research…what do YOU want to know about your family?

My personal bent, when it comes to genealogical research, is to go past the names and the dates.  I want to know the WHY.  My family emigrated to the United States from Ireland in the 1850’s.  Some of them did it because of the famine, others, well, it’s not so clear.  Yet. 

When I had the chance to go to Ireland, long before I began the foray into the family history that now occupies my every thought, I was 16.  I knew this was my homeland, and I was beside myself.  For the first time in my life everywhere I looked I saw family.  And I was seen as family. My DNA makes it pretty unmistakeable, in the physical form, to question whether or not I might have Irish ancestry.  I felt at home.  For the first time in my (then) young life.  I felt a part of things.  I felt surrounded by people who understood how I thought, what sparked interest, without me having to say a word, or ask a single question.  The only other place I’ve ever felt that is in Australia, my home now.  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Continue reading “What would YOU like to know?”
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