Computerized Trolling

By Richard A. Pence

© Copyright, 1998.

"FIND YOUR ANCESTORS ON THE INTERNET!"

That's what the ads proclaim. And you can. But not quite in the way the advertisements would have you believe.

Sure, there are thousands of family trees posted on the World Wide Web. And there are search engines designed solely to help you find those which may interest you. But, even at its best, what you find on the Internet is - by definition - at least a secondary resource. That is, what you find there is second-hand, even third- or fourth-hand information and, as such, cannot usually be trusted. And, at its worst (and there is plenty of it), what you find in a great many of the posted trees is nothing more than "gathered names" with no supporting information. What you most often find is, to put it charitably, well-intentioned "genealogical junk."

Today's technology makes gathering or swaping genealogical information almost ridiculously easy. Too often what this means is that it is also ridiculously easy to send or receive - and thus perpetuate - lineage errors. As heretical as it may seem to some, just because you find it on the Internet doesn't mean it's true! In fact, when it comes to genealogy there probably is as much misinformation on line as there is "good" information.

For example, while browsing the web one night I discovered that a local society had placed on line the inscriptions from tombstones in a cemetery where two of my wife's ancestors are buried - a great grandfather and his father. Unfortunately, the information given for the great grandfather had a typographical error in the date of death. This error was made while creating the web page from a previously published book. For the great-great grandfather, a mistake was repeated from the book. Both it and the web page state that an inscription on his stone reads, "Son of N. B." What the tombstone actually says is, "Erected by his son, W. B." (And, for a genealogist, that's a mighty big difference!) If I hadn't known otherwise, it would have been a simple step to add these two pieces of "great new Internet information" to my records. And both entries would have been wrong!

Thus, what you find on the Internet has to be treated in the same fashion as any published source: a shortcut to finding the record you need to verify that the information is accurate. The same goes for indexes to various records or reprints that have been published on CD-ROMs or placed on line.

All these tools make it possible for us to have major reference materials at our fingertips - and right in our own homes. But the wonder of it all sometimes makes us forget that this information is the creation of other people - and people make mistakes. In genealogy, they make lots of them! What you most often find is not the final answer, but merely a clue that you can use to advance your research.

A noted genealogist and writer recently observed that, with so many new sources of information available, genealogists have largely left the world of actual nitty-gritty digging for records and have entered "the age of verification." What this means is we have it within our power to save thousands upon thousands of hours of rummaging through courthouses, libraries and cemeteries: We have finding aids we never thought possible. But these aids do not relieve us of the necessity or responsibility of "checking it out" - verification.

How, then, does one make effective use of these new tools?

Here are some examples of what has been working for me. I call the process "computerized trolling."

The trolling starts by identifying which persons in my files I need information on. Then I try to figure out where - geographically - I might find this material. Once the problem and search strategies are defined, my computer goes into action. My goal is to locate those who may have knowledge of the particular family or those with knowledge of the records where these people lived. It's sort of one brick at a time, but the building is getting taller.

Since I am not as well organized as I should be, my quests are often done on the spur of the moment - but I can envision systematically developing a list of "missing links" and then methodically working that list.

Probably the easiest way to explain what I mean by "computerized trolling" is to provide recent examples.

The problem: My third great grandfather, John Pence, was married three times. I am descended from the second wife and have fairly good information on her as well as on the first wife. It is the third wife about whom little was known. After the death of his second wife about 1826, John Pence married Elizabeth Records on 3 April 1828 in Bartholomew County, Ind.

Here is all that was known about Elizabeth, gleaned from family accounts and county histories:

    Her maiden name was Heaton.

    She was first married to James Record/Records, who died leaving her with two young sons, Thomas and Spencer Records.

    She is buried with John Pence in Henderson County, Ill. (where they migrated in 1828), and her tombstone says she died 13 Aug. 1843, aged 42 years.

How then to find out where Elizabeth Heaton Records came from and who her parents might be?

I started by checking the on-line indexes for early U.S. census records. In 1830 in Bartholomew County there were two persons by the name of Record listed as heads of households, a William and a "Spence." Because Elizabeth had a son named Spencer, a rather uncommon given name, this provided the first clue. In 1830 there was no one in Bartholomew named Heaton, indicating that Elizabeth likely came there not with her family but with her husband. That, plus the fact that no marriage record was found in Bartholomew County, suggested they were married elsewhere.

[NOTE: Census indexes and images are available on subscription sites on the Internet. Before investing in a subscription, check with you local library. Often you can access the pay sites free through your library, sometimes even at home but often at the library. Also check genealogical websies for the county or counties in question, for often volunteers have transcribed census and other records.]

A second clue came from checking the 1830 census listings for other counties and stes for the surnames Record/Records and Heaton I could find only one county where both surnames were present that year: Brown County, Oh.

The 1820 census CD was then checked, again for the surnames Record/Records and Heaton. Since this was the approximate year of the marriage of Elizabeth to James, one would expect to find both families in the county of their marriage. This time, two counties had both surnames: a county in Indiana to the west of Bartholomew and, again, Brown County, Oh. And, in Brown County in 1820, one of the hits was named Spencer Records!

The road now led unmistakably to Brown County, so off to the Internet.

There may be an easier way to do this, but my pattern is to start with "Cyndi's List" (see end of story), go to the U.S. link on that page, from there to the Ohio page, and then to Brown County. At this latter site a number of people were offering to do look-ups in published records. I asked one of them to check Heaton probates and another to check for the marriage of James Records to Elizabeth Heaton in about 1821. The probate search was negative, but the second request garnered the marriage record. No parents names were given, but there was an unexpected bonus at the website. Through a message there I learned the e-mail address of someone who maintains a Heaton "clearing house." A message to him was quickly answered with the names of Elizabeth Heaton's parents and her place of birth.

I can get a copy of the marriage record now that I know where it is (and the clerk's address is at the website). No documentation was provided concerning Elizabeth's parents, but that, too, can likely be obtained with additional follow-up.

Perhaps this is an elementary example and perhaps the information could have been garnered absent CDs or the Internet, but it certainly would have been a much more complicated and lengthy process. What had eluded me for 30 years I was able to find in a couple of days. And it was all done while sitting at home! Admittedly, I had never before made a real effort to "find Elizabeth" - but never before did I have the tools to give me a starting point.

There are other similar stories. For example, from York County, Neb., via e-mail came the death notice of a man named Beaver who died at the home of a Pence in that county. The notice gave his age and said he was born in Ross County, Oh. The Beaver family was prominent in early York, and at least one of them married a Pence. So I checked the Ross County web site. This brought not only appropriate census records but a contact with two people, one with a copy of a Beaver genealogy and another who is working to update it!

Compiled family trees on the Internet or on CDs also present an opportunity for "computerized trolling," but I only use these occasionallly. For one thing, the "fish population" seems a bit light: Many of the trees I see don't give me a lot of confidence that their posters can help me. I did, however, contact someone who obviously had information, albeit skimpy, on some present-day descendants of a daughter of my third great grandfather John Pence and his first wife. My reward here was not in getting names, dates and places (many of which I already had), but something more worthwhile: copies - transmitted via e-mail attachment - of family letters and other documents that had been handed down for three or four generations! And, of course, the chance to "meet" a pleasant new cousin - one who owns a rocking chair John Pence made for one of his wives (which one we are not certain).

If you want to "go fishing" for yourself, here's how to do your own "computerized trolling":

  1. Define your problem(s). Start with the less-complicated ones.
  2. Plumb your at-hand resources (at home or at your library or Family History Center) or the Internet, focussing on likely targets of information.
  3. Troll the 'Net to determine the resources in those target areas.
  4. Follow-up with those familiar with the target areas or families.
  5. Remember: You need to double-check what you find against the original record when possible, or by checking additional sources about them.

For most genealogists, the process of analyzing data and determining search routes is a part of the lure of "ancestor hunting." Defining your own problems and solutions is infinitely more challenging - and rewarding - than copying the work of someone else. That work can provide you with researc clues but it may or may not be accurate.

Today there are seemingly limitless finding aids at our beck and call - so many that it is sometimes bewildering. But all that's needed to exploit them is a bit of imagination, a dash of logic and a dose of determination.

The promise is there for those who enjoy the thrill of the chase.

Toss your line in the water. There's some "big ones" to be caught.

And be sure to remember the three most important words in genealogy: verify, verify, verify.


Cyndi's List

Want to connect to the website of the National Archives? Or the Ohio State Archives? A particular local historical society? Or maybe you need the definition of a genealogical term. Or did you forgot the address of the site where you found a cemetery listing?

Whatever your genealogical quest, all roads lead from "Cyndi's List of Genealogical Sites on the Internet." The proprietor, Cyndi Howells, has put together a remarkably well-organized and comprehensive list with links to nearly 30,000 different sites where you can find many of the answers to your genealogical questions.

If you've never ventured to Cyndi's, you can do so by pointing your browser to Cyndi's List

And there is always Google. Spend some time figuring out how to frame your queries for best results.

To really understand and appreciate its breadth and scope, you need to spend a little time browsing. Start by trying to locate your own county's genealogical website. Then locate the National Archives website. Or the Bureau of Land Management's site, where the records of the original sales of federal lands are being put on line.

If you're like me, after a few visits there you'll wonder how you ever got along without it. Another redeeeming feature: While there are pay sites with much valuable genealogical information, a great deal of It what you can find on the web is FREE!