How reliable are lineage society application databases?

From the GRS system of the Daughters of the American Revolution to the recent collaboration of FamilySearch, American Ancestors, and the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, many of the American lineage societies are placing the details of older applications online. In some cases, it is just a transcription or image of the application; others include the supporting documentation. These databases make a huge amount of new information available to applicants and genealogical researchers. They also create a faulty assumption: since the applications included in these databases was once accepted as accurate by the societies, the information provided is accurate.

That is not always the case. Lineage society standards have changed dramatically over time. For example, many societies originally accepted what they called “family records” to verify the family tree. These family records are generally what we would now call pedigree charts or family group sheets, forms that someone fills out to record these family history. Many are recorded from memory and do not include details as to where the information originated. It was easy for someone to record information in error with no way to verify their memory. More recently, some societies have only required documentation of the “blood line,” the direct line to the ancestor. Information on the spouses is not verified by the society. That increases the likelihood that information on the spouses may contain errors. Applications may have passed the verification process at the time that would not pass the verification process now.

Knowing this, the best approach is not to accept these applications as accurate. Instead, look at them closely. What sources were provided to verify the application? For each source, who provided the information? How likely were they to accurately recount the information they are provided? Use the same standards you would use to weigh the value of a family genealogy, local history, journal article or more. If you make that commitment, you’ll avoid the frustration of relying on an application no longer considered acceptable.

Published by Bryna O'Sullivan

Proprietor of Charter Oak Genealogy, Bryna O'Sullivan specializes in assisting clients with lineage society applications and with French to English genealogical translations.

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