Get Your Genealogy Facts Straight: Proof-Checking Tips for Records

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena provides some advice about verifying genealogy records, especially in the case of a newspaper article contradicting other family history information you have found during your research.

Probably one of the most iconic newspaper images to ever appear is that of President Harry S. Truman holding up an early edition of the Chicago Tribune that boldly proclaimed the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Of course, that newspaper headline announcement from the 1948 presidential election was premature and involved some wishful thinking. Today, everyone knows the name of President Harry S. Truman; few remember his opponent Gov. Thomas E. Dewey.

Clearly, newspapers sometimes make mistakes.

Occasionally, genealogists find a newspaper article that conflicts with what they know about an ancestor. What’s a researcher to do when they come across a newspaper article that doesn’t match their family history records?

Cross-Check with Records from Catalogs

Genealogical records of all types contain mistakes—just ask anyone who has ever been an informant on a death certificate. Even if you can correctly provide all of the information for your deceased loved one’s death certificate, there’s still the chance of errors creeping in from the reporting physician, the funeral home, or even the typist.

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One of our jobs as family historians is to collect and verify facts about our ancestors. Those facts may come in the form of an original or derivative document that has primary information, information supplied by a witness to the event, or secondary information supplied by someone who was not an eyewitness. Obviously the further removed from the eyewitnesses and the event, the more chances something is going to have errors. With any genealogical evidence you find, you will want to gather more than one example if possible because mistakes can and do happen.

As with all genealogy research, it’s important to not rely on just one source. While we are lucky to live in an era where we have a wealth of online materials available to us, some genealogy records are not and will never be online. So record the family information you find in newspaper articles, and then search through archival and library catalogs for paper records that haven’t been digitized, like diaries and journals, occupational records, church records, court records and other documents created by the community and its members at the time of the event. Consult catalogs such as WorldCat, ArchiveGrid, and the Family History Library Catalog to find these materials.

As you use these catalogs, search or browse on the place your ancestor was from to find what records exist for that community. And remember: because these catalogs are frequently updated, check back and record your results in a research log to keep track of search dates and keywords used.

Look at the Next Day’s Publication

Let’s face it, mistakes happen with newspaper articles and they can even happen when an article has been proof-read numerous times. There’s a chance that the difference between your existing genealogy record and a newspaper article was an error that the newspaper corrected in the following day’s issue. Make sure to look for the newspaper’s correction column to see if a correction was reported.

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Newspapers have long reported corrections to their articles, as can be seen in this example from a 1730 Massachusetts newspaper.

newspaper corrections, New-England Weekly Journal newspaper article 16 March 1730

New-England Weekly Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 16 March 1730, page 2

Sometimes in the rush to get a story out to beat the competition, or due to the pressure of looming deadlines, a newspaper article might be published with a glaring mistake. Today, we are all familiar with the fate of the Titanic and its loss of over 1,500 people. However, details were sketchy if not totally incorrect in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy—as clearly shown in this example.

article about the sinking of the Titanic, Riverside Daily Press newspaper article 15 April 1912

Riverside Daily Press (Riverside, California), 15 April 1912, page 1

Thorough research of the Titanic disaster would include not only numerous newspaper accounts that were printed for days and weeks after the sinking, but also other records created at the time of the sinking and even after.

Do you have a newspaper article that conflicts with a genealogy record? Just like the game “telephone,” records are going to conflict as information is passed from one person to another. Faulty memories, transcription errors and more can cause problems in any record. But by utilizing the proof-checking steps mentioned above you can get beyond that difficulty and come up with a sound genealogical conclusion based on actual facts.

Genealogy Tip: Newspapers are essential to family history research, providing stories about your ancestors’ lives that you just can’t find anywhere else. But as with all genealogy research, gather as many records from as many sources as you can, so that you can cross-check the data and establish the facts.

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A Peek into Yesteryear: Using Scrapbooks for Genealogy Research

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena describes how scrapbooks can be a surprising and valuable resource for your family history research.

Did you ever keep a scrapbook? I’m not referring to the modern-day scrapbooks that are essentially decorated photograph albums. I’m referring to the type of scrapbook that held postcards, letters, favorite poems, photos and newspaper clippings. When I was young I would fill my scrapbook with all the events I was a part of, like band concerts, school graduations, and church activities. I would include postcards I had received from family members, and newspaper clippings I found interesting (I still have a clipping my grandmother gave me about how to cook a bat).

photo of a scrapbook

As a family history researcher I have found scrapbooks from past generations that included genealogically significant information such as newspaper clippings of births, marriages, and deaths. I’m always amazed at the dedication some people have put into documenting their community and their family through scrapbooks. Scrapbooks tell a story, a fact that was reinforced for me a few years back when I was helping a client preserve her childhood scrapbook that included valentines given to her by elementary school classmates. Some of those classmates were Japanese Americans who would later be held at the Manzanar internment camp during the World War II years.

photo of a scrapbook showing newspaper clippings

In her book Scrapbooks: An American History, Jessica Helfand describes scrapbooks as being a “visual autobiography.” Looking at the scrapbooks I own, it’s easy to see that they are autobiographies and community histories. Scrapbooks contain visual representations of what was important to the owner. Scrapbooks can hold a variety of genealogical treasures, even in cases where the scrapbook’s original owner was not related to you.

Consider some of the items that get pasted into scrapbooks: letter correspondence, newspaper articles, and photos. These all document the interests and life of the scrapbook owner, and include people from his or her community: neighbors, family members, and friends and associates from school, church and work. As virtual autobiographies scrapbooks should be part of a genealogical search, even in cases where they are not your ancestor’s but rather from someone who lived in their community. In one scrapbook that I own that dates from 1930 to 1950, there is a newspaper clipping showing the names of a graduating class as well as photographs, correspondence, thank-you notes and invitations, all documenting the life of a community.

photo of a scrapbook showing an old letter

While we often think of scrapbooking as an individual pursuit, it’s important to remember that individuals weren’t the only ones who kept scrapbooks. Organizations also kept scrapbooks that documented the people, history, and achievements of their group. So while an individual’s scrapbook may provide you with social history and even a possible mention of an ancestor, an organizational scrapbook will provide information about a group that your ancestor was a part of, allowing you to better document their activities.

photo of a scrapbook showing a picture of a high school graduation

How do you find scrapbooks to use in your genealogy research? They can be housed in manuscript collections found at libraries, historical societies, museums and archives. To find scrapbooks you can use a union catalog like ArchiveGrid. A recent search on the keyword “scrapbook” resulted in over 36,000 results.

Other combined library catalogs also exist. When I searched the catalog for Online Archive of California, which includes museums, archives, universities and public libraries in California, I found scrapbooks for organizations and groups such as:

You can also search an individual repository’s catalog for the keyword “scrapbook.”

Individuals, organizations, and other types of groups created scrapbooks that they filled with items they were interested in and didn’t want to forget, as well as ephemera that documented the activities and events of the life of their community. Many are often packed with old newspaper clippings that provide a wealth of genealogical information. Scrapbooks are just one more example of a genealogy resource that can tell your family’s history. Be sure to include them in your family history searches.

Note: all photos are from the author’s collection.