Suggestions for Amateur Genealogists:
Genealogical Conundrums, Evading Pitfalls, and Seldom-Used Sources

Genealogical Fallacies
Common Pitfalls for the Unwary


In genealogical research many fallacies ensnare inexperienced researchers. They include (but are not limited to) what I call:

The Fallacy of Presentism
The Fallacy of Shared Surnames
The Fallacy of Repetition



The Fallacy of Presentism

     I have long been aware of this fallacy, but lacked a suitable name for it until I found the term "presentism" in Mills[1]. It can take many forms, but all involve what Mills terms "the interpretation of the past by present standards[2]." It is often a form of the etymological fallacy - the erroneous belief that words had the same meanings in the past that they do today.

     My first encounters with this fallacy were misinterpretation of terms of relationship and terms of order. Both of those involve misinterpretation of genealogical and social relationships caused by interpreting terms in old records (such as brother, uncle, senior, and junior) as if their meanings then were the same as their meanings today. McCracken's article on terms of relationship[3] should be required reading for those new to genealogy. Language is continually changing and evolving, and the uses of many words have changed over time. Researchers must become aware of what certain words meant, and how they were used, in the times and places that generated the records that they consult.

     A genealogist must be, to some extent, also an historian and a sociologist. You must have some degree of sound overall knowledge of your ancestors' times and places in order to understand the events in their lives.

     See my articles Senior and Junior and Tertius, Oh My!: Unrelated People with the Same Name and When is an Uncle Not an Uncle?: Slippery Terms of Relationship.



The Fallacy of Shared Surnames

     I have often answered posts from people who have fallen victim to this fallacy. They think, having discovered a colonial ancestor with a well-known surname, that said ancestor must be a descendant of a well-known immigrant. I have most often encountered this with people trying to prove Mayflower ancestry. A common example is finding an ancestor named Alden in the seventeenth-century in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and assuming he was a descendant od John Alden of the Mayflower. That assumption cannot be made because there were often multiple early immigrants of the same surname for whom no relationship can be demonstrated. Henry Alden was a seventeenth-century settler in the Bay Colony who left many descendants, and no relationship has been demonstrated to John Alden of the Plymouth Colony. What has been demonstrated is that Henry was not a descendant of John.

     This also holds true for other Mayflower surnames. In the seventeenth century Bay Colony were three men named Bradford - brothers Robert and William Bradford of Beverly, and the apparently unrelated Robert Bradford of Boston. None of those men were descendants of Governor William Bradford of the Mayflower.

     I have also encountered this fallacy in a family to which I have devoted decades of research - the descendants of Samuel and Elizabeth (___) Packard of the Diligent, Hingham, Weymouth, and Bridgewater. Thomas Packer, a British surgeon who lived in New Hampshire, has often been confused with Thomas Packard, son of immigrant Samuel, because so little is known about Thomas, son of Samuel. Despite the similarity of surname ("Packard" is sometimes wriiten as "Packer" in old records) the two men named Thomas cannot be demonstrated to be the same person.

     Errors such as these have long existed in print, beginning with some of the earliest genealogical works in this country published in the early nineteenth century. Some have been repeated many time in print by those who copied from earlier printed works without conducting the research needed to vet assertions. Those errors are rampant on the internet in undocumented family trees derived from copying and not from research. See the next section of this page, concerning "The Fallacy of Repetition."

     In short, assumptions concerning ancestry based upon similarity or identity of surnames are often badly flawed when they are not supported by sound research.

     See my article The Name's the Same - But the Family Isn't.



The Fallacy of Repetition

     This fallacy has existed in genealogy since the beginning of genealogical publishing, and has grown exponentially worse with the growth of the internet. Errors that appeared in print as far back as the early nineteenth century have recurred in print to this day, and exploded across the internet. This is often an instance of the fallacy of false authority - where the assertions of an "expert" are repeated endlessly, even though that "expert" offered no proof of the assertion that meets today's standards for genealogical evidence.

     One of my favorites examples of this fallacy is the assertion that the wife of Samuel Packard of the Diligent, Hingham, Weymouth, and Bridgewater, was Elizabeth Stream. We know, from contemporary records, that her given name was Elizabeth, but we do not know her surname. "Stream" was an assertion of her surname made many years ago without proof, and has been repeated endlessly in print and online. Aside from the complete lack of proof for this assertion it is, prima facie, unlikely. We know that Samuel was almost certainly from East Anglia, and "Stream" was not then a usual East Anglian surname[4]. Numerous other errors concerning the Packard family have appeared in print, have been repeated in print, and have appeared in countless places online[5].

     If an assertion is frequently found in print or online that contributes nothing to its likelihood. Only assertions backed by contemporary records, arguments soundly based on contemporary records, or first-hand knowledge, can be considered as candidates for truthful assertions. Anything not founded upon contemporary records or first-hand knowledge should be questioned as not in compliance with the standards for genealogical research in the twenty-first century.



     Note 1 - Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, Third Edition (for Kindle) (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2015) (hereafter "Mills") at pp. 20-21.

     Note 2 - ibid.

     Note 3 - George E. McCracken, "Terms of Relationship in Colonial Times" in The American Genealogist, 55 (1979), pp. 52-54.

     Note 4 - Karle S. Packard, "Samuel Packard of Bridgewater, Massachusetts and His Family" in Packard's Progress 17 (Feb. 1991), pp. 9-12; available online.

     Note 5 - Karle S. Packard, "Errors in Print" in Packard's Progress 19 (Aug., 1991): pp. 7-8; available online.


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