Tuesday 1 December 2015

Perils of Using Family Trees in Old (or any) Publications

I have encountered family trees published in various documents over the years. Initially I relied on these histories to flesh out my own tree. As I did more research myself and dug into actual records, though, I began to realize many of these stories often had the wrong people in the wrong places. That was especially true for people who were not directly part of the ancestral line of the authors.

For example, there are three family summaries published and available, online as it turns out, for the Bullock/Bulloch family who emigrated from Scotland to Canada with later lines moving to various parts of the United States.

Two Anderson siblings, James (1822-1892), a 2nd great-granduncle of mine, and Janet (1827-1892), my 2nd great-grandaunt, married Bullock siblings, both marriages taking place in Lanark County, Ontario. Their father, Gilbert Anderson, had brought his family to Canada in 1832. I wrote about him in a post on 15 October 2013 and about his wife, Margaret Maitland on 22 Oct 2013.

I suspect that errors creep into the family histories as a result of undocumented stories passed down verbally through the generations. Descendants don’t always have the inclination to check out information written in the books they have been given, particularly, as I said, for people to whom they are not directly related. The mistakes, unfortunately, get attached to other family trees as more family historians copy the data, but also do not go to the trouble of checking and verifying it.

There are three publications available – that I know of – that described the history of the Bullock or Bullock family and, incidentally the Anderson family: 
·         Genealogy of the Bulloch, Anderson, Coleman and Knobbs Families (1910) by Hellen Knobbs Bulloch;
·         History of Hancock County, Illinois (1880) by Thomas Gregg; and
·         A Genealogy of James Bullock and Mary Hill, Latter Day Saint Pioneers by Kenneth C. Bullock, 1964.

The main problem in all of the publications is that there are no citations indicating where information was sourced.

Genealogy of the Bulloch, Anderson, Coleman and Knobbs Families – In this book, the author indicated the parents of Gilbert Anderson, my 3rd great grandfather, were John Anderson and Margaret Wilson, Gilbert’s birth year as 1794 and his birth place as Glasgow (Scotland). His death was reported by the author as 18 July 1872 (according to Ontario records it was actually 22 July 1871). I accepted the family names for a while as have many other researchers. They appear in many published family trees. The problem was that I could not find any birth, marriage or death information in Scottish records that would confirm the relationship. The write-up lists six siblings of Gilbert so that should have been helpful in finding the family. After an exhaustive search of Scottish records on ScotlandsPeople I finally found his birth entry which showed his parents as James Anderson and Janet Finlay, his baptism date as 12 October 1792 and birth place as Campsie, Stirlingshire, Scotland. Gilbert was baptized as Gabriel but his actual birth date was not recorded in the church register. From that information I did find the other five children as well, all records having the same parents’ names. So the author had the children’s names mostly right – there was one child missing from her list – but the parents wrong. Because the information had come from so far back (late 1700s) and the parents had never left Scotland, the truth had been lost in the stories that were handed down.

History of Hancock County – The write-up on John Bullock, now with a ‘k’ in his name, says he married Jennet (Janet) Anderson in 1834 but gives no details of her family. The account also says he was born in Western Canada although it should actually have said Canada West, which was later to become the province of Ontario. The marriage was actually in 1844 as Jennet or Janet would only have been seven years old in 1834.

A Genealogy of James Bullock and Mary Hill – There is a write-up for Janet Bullock, who married James Anderson in 1848. It notes he was born “abt. 1826, of Lanark, Ontario, Canada” and was the son of Gilbert Anderson and Margaret Maitland. The parents’ names are right but he would have been born in Scotland since the family did not arrive in Canada until 1832. While there was a Lanark County, there was not a Canada or a province of Ontario until 1867.

In the same book the write-up for John Bullock indicates he married Janet Anderson who was born “15 May 1827, Kirkintillock, Dumbartonshire, Scotland [sic]” and was the daughter of Gilbert and Margaret. One problem is that no birth/baptism records can be found for Janet in Kirkintilloch, Dunbartonshire, or for two of her brothers, John (b. 1829) and Robert (b. 1832). While the family may well have been there from 1827 to 1832, I have not found any register of the births anywhere. One daughter was born in Kirkintilloch in 1826; we have that record. We know they arrived in Canada in 1832 from a number of sources (US censuses, obituaries, death records, etc.). John Bullock was shown to have been born in Campsie, Stirlingshire, Scotland. The Anderson family lived in the Campsie area as well where their first two children were born suggesting the families may have been acquainted before they came to Canada, although it was reported the Bullocks emigrated in 1819. Janet’s birth date must come from family lore. It is recorded on her grave stone and may be in a family bible but I have not yet seen any formal document confirming the date.

Books like these can be useful as they may point a family historian in the right direction initially but they can also be very misleading as they very often do not have references or citations that will allow a reader to check dates, places and names. The summaries often come down through the generations verbally as well and mistakes can certainly be made in final transpositions of the stories.

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is the Editor of Relatively Speaking, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Genealogical Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated