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Consider the Source

Whether it is incredulous politicians or innocent and well-meaning genealogists and family historians, as we navigate the sometimes difficult pathway between truth and assumption, we must always consider the source.

Many years ago, while he was still mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom was asked to respond to something someone had said about him. I have long since forgotten what it was that was said or who said it, but I have not forgotten Newsom’s response. His accuser was a well-known public figure and Newsom’s response in denial of whatever the accusation was, was simply to reply nonchalantly with “consider the source.” The fact that I don’t recall just what the whole brouhaha entailed tells me Newsom’s approach was the right one for him: attack the accuser’s reputation and credibility.

Which brings me to the coronavirus. I am not a doctor. I’m not a scientist, not an epidemiologist. I honestly don’t know just how dangerous this whole thing is, and especially given the fact that I am over sixty and diabetic and therefore in the high-risk class of people, I have the right to be concerned, and concerned I am. Oh, on the one hand, it’s somewhat amusing to see panic-driven shortages of toilet paper and all, but, on the other hand, entire countries are being shut down.

One thing I have observed, however, is that most — not all, but most — of the most vocal proponents of the “it’s no big deal” crowd are defenders of the Trump Administration, and if there is one thing I positively know to be true it is this: Donald J. Trump has zero credibility with me. Period. End of story.

And so, as we navigate the sometimes difficult pathway between panic and denial, consider the source.

Although far less sinister than the workings of the Trump Administration, the same is true when dealing with genealogy and family history. Modern-day record-keeping, be it from official governmental sources, from non-profit agencies, or just from one’s individual family computer, are so much further advanced and detailed than in the past. The further one goes back in time the more it is the case. Names and dates are particularly troublesome, if only because they are the most common data points we use in our work.

For one thing, records were more than oftentimes hand-written and thus susceptible to illegibility. Language played a big part, which can readily be seen as names and spelling of names were modified to accommodate the emigration from one foreign land to another, like from Heil to Heyl to Hiles to Hile. Moreover, our present compartmentalization of time is now measured in minutes and seconds whereas in the not too distant past time was measured in days, months or even years. While it is perhaps of little direct relevance to us as genealogists today, it was only in the 1880s (November 18, 1883 to be exact) that time was standardized in the United States as a result of the national impacts of the railroad system and the need to keep reliable schedules, but the switch from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian beginning in the mid-1750s (and continuing on into the 20th century in some countries) has also brought confusion to our line of avocation.

And, finally, we’re human. Mistakes — both honest and the occasionally deliberate — are made on a fairly regular basis, and the temptation for genealogists and the family oral historians who recorded the important names, dates, and relations in the family Bible to rely on information passed on by others — perhaps accurate and perhaps not — remain ever present.

And so, as we navigate the sometimes difficult pathway between truth and assumption, consider the source.

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