professional genealogy

One name, two men: why manuscript finding aids need to be read carefully.

Manuscript collections – the documents that our ancestors have left behind – help us to flesh out pictures of our ancestors. They give us more information than  birth, death, or marriage. They tell us what the men and women who preceded us were like as people.

The owners of these collections usually create “finding aids.” Finding aids are miniature catalogues. They have a description of the collection’s creator and a short outline of where and how the materials are stored. Most of the time, the descriptions are historically accurate and can provide hints for further research.

But once in a while, they have a major error. I’ve been researching a well-known ancestor and was surprised to find images of his family home in Ohio. Why? Because he never lived in Ohio. The manuscript collection referred to someone else of the same name – and that family had adopted my ancestor’s history to increase their prestige. The holder of the manuscript collection should have caught the error but didn’t. If I were relying on their work, I’d have gone in the wrong direction.

One name – two men. What lessons can you take from this? 1) Don’t rely on one source to do your work. 2)Know the area’s history. Look for things that don’t make sense. If you don’t know it, look for ways to find help. Local genealogists can be a great resource.

I caught the error simply because whoever wrote the finding aid knew Ohio’s history – and not Connecticut’s. By knowing Connecticut’s history – and the fact that the ancestor in question never settled in Ohio – I was able to protect my own work. Knowing the history was worth my time.


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