20 April 2012

Almost Famous

Many people are tempted to start their tree with a celebrity or historical figure they've been told is in their family tree. That can be a fun thing to do if you're interested in the ancestors of said famous person. If, however, you are interested in your ancestors, start with yourself and work backwards.
We all have rumors of a famous ancestor, most of them turn out to either be false or greatly exaggerated, i.e. that President wasn't your direct ancestor but rather his wife's brother married your 7th cousin 4 times removed. Work your way back a step at a time. If the celebrity/historical figure is on your tree you'll find them and have the proof to back it up. Or maybe you'll find something even more interesting! You may find an inventor, a town founder or small town politician. While our society is obsessed with celebrity, our country wouldn't be here without the blood, sweat and tears of farmers, railroad workers, coal miners, slaves,... The list is endless. All of those people deserve to be discovered and honored.
One popular, online tool for finding famous cousins, for example, does an excellent job of leading researchers astray by incorporating entertaining details such as women giving birth at age seventy or an immigrant couple in the 1700s having twelve children in Massachusetts, only to inexplicably return to England to have their thirteenth. That's because these tools, while potentially helpful, still aren't quite sophisticated enough to consistently sift out poor research or wishful thinking from reality.
One factor frequently used in their algorithms is how many genealogists have included a particular connection in their family trees, but this fails to take into account a troublesome echo-chamber effect...If one of them makes a mistake and pops it online, it's often not long before some of the other descendants take a shortcut and unwittingly introduce that same error into their own trees. Before long, it looks true because so many are making the same claim, but it's just an inaccuracy repeated many times.
Megan Smolenyak in her book Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing.

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  1. My dad has always said that Maurice "Rocket" Richard was his second cousin (or something like that). So far the closest connection I've found is 8th cousin! Everyone loves to have a celebrity in the family. :)

    And that's so true about errors being repeated until they look like facts. Acadian genealogy is full of myths that are more common than fact on online trees. :(

    1. I like Megan's use of the phrase "echo-chamber". That's exactly what online trees are becoming :-(