Great Quotes from Vita Brevis

Posted on: December 19th, 2014 by
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I’m a big fan of’s Vita Brevis blog. This morning’s post has tips for Jump Starting your Genealogical Research from the various bloggers, including David Allen Lambert, Andrew Krea, and others.

My favorites are the last two, from Penny Stratton and Scott C. Steward.

Penny works in book production for the New England Historic Genealogical Society. She presented the recent NEHGS webinar Sharing Your Family History: Ideas from NEHGS. Her tip starts with a quote from author Neil Gaiman “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard,” and concludes “But you do need to sit down and put your fingers on the keyboard and begin!” 1 Boy, is that ever true!

Scott is NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief, with numerous publications to his credit. Scott’s tip: “It seems worth repeating: Start with what you know, then prove it with documentation!… After all, many an article in the Register, the Record, or NGSQ began as a way to tie up loose research ends.” 2

Scott’s point has recently come home to me as I revisited genealogical conclusions that I arrived at in past years but never formally wrote down. It is, I suspect, why the fifth point of the Genealogical Proof Standard is “soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.” 3 Somehow, explaining your genealogical problem and proposed solution for a hypothetical reader forces you to clarify what you think you know, raises questions you may not have posed before (inspiring you to revisit or repeat past research), and challenges you to articulate what you think in a way you may not have done previously.

  1. Scott C. Steward, “Jump Starting Your Genealogical Research,” Vita Brevis, 19 December 2014 ( : accessed 19 December 2014).
  2. Ibid.
  3. “The Genealogical Proof Standard,” Board for Certification of Genealogists ( : accessed 19 December 2014).
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What’s in a Name?–John Adam or John Adams

Posted on: December 16th, 2014 by
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In my last post, about upgrading sources, I gave an example of accessing and citing a digitized copy of a book of biographies rather than a USGenWeb transcription from the book.

The subject of the biographical sketch I cited was John A. Whetstone. John was the son of Elias Whetstone of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania and Summit County, Colorado. Both John and Elias were early settlers and successful ranchers in the Breckenridge, Colorado, area. 1

I “always thought” that John’s name was John Adams Whetstone, and that he was named after President John Adams. After all, he had a brother named James Madison Whetstone, 2 so it’s not illogical that his family used a Presidential naming theme. And twelve member trees on call him John Adams Whetstone. 3

However, Progressive Men of Western Colorado lists him as “John Adam Whetstone.” 4 This discrepancy caused me to review digital source materials I had accumulated about John–census records, newspaper accounts, and death index and Findagrave entries. All give his name as either John or John A. Whetstone. Delving into paper files, I found a copy of an article from a California genealogical journal to which several granddaughters contributed materials. 5 The article give the same name as Progressive Men of Western Colorado–John Adam Whetstone.

Still, the evidence about John’s middle name was less than completely convincing. In favor of “Adams” was an apparent family naming pattern. In favor of “Adam” were two unsourced authored works. The information in Progressive Men of Western Colorado might have been provided by John, but might also have accumulated errors in the editing and publication process. The journal article contains information apparently provided by family members, but the family informants named in the article were under ten when John died, and a generation removed. 6 helpfully provided a more conclusive answer through its hints: four entries for John A. Whetstone in its “U.S., Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970″ database and application images. John’s SAR membership application dated 14 April 1925 is signed “John A. Whetstone,” but three supplemental applications dated 1 March 1929 are signed “John Adam Whetstone.” 7 They provide evidence that I accept as conclusive–original sources with primary information from the man himself.

John’s SAR applications also provide the maiden name of his wife and the names, birth dates, and residences of his children and grandchildren, along with more, which I’ll discuss in a future blog post.

  1. Progressive Men of Western Colorado Illustrated (Chicago: A. W. Bowen & Co., 1905), 444-445; digitized book, Internet Archive ( : accessed 16 December 2014).
  2. “J. M. Whetstone Passes Away,” Routt County Republican, 30 July 1926, copy supplied by Joyce Cusick, Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
  3. Hints for John Adam Whetstone, Lois Mackin’s Tree (private member tree), ( : accessed 16 December 2014).
  4. Progressive Men of Western Colorado, 444.
  5. Peggy O’Neill Solberg with Flora Labar, “The Whetstone Families,” Hidden Valley Journal, 21:9-13.
  6. “California Death Index, 1905-1939,” database,, entry for John A. Whitstone, 28 January 1934, citing original data from California Department of Health and Welfare. “California Birth Index, 1905-1995,” database,, entries for Flora Mae Schneckenber, 20 July 1931, and Virginia Sybil Whetstone, 14 August 1926.
  7. “U.S. Sons of the American Revolution Membership Applications, 1889-1970,” database and images,, entries and application images for John A. Whetstone, SAR member number 41397.
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Upgrade Your Sources

Posted on: December 9th, 2014 by

Genealogists need to be constantly mindful of the quality and reliability of the sources they are using. 1 In today’s world, digitization of original records and printed works is making higher-quality, more reliable genealogical source materials ever more widely available and ever more convenient to access.

I was recently reminded of this when I drafted an upcoming column for Minnesota Genealogist, the quarterly journal of the Minnesota Genealogical Society. 2 For the column, I summarized research I originally conducted about ten years ago. In revisiting the research, I found that I had relied on derivative sources in a number of instances. Happily, a large number of the sources I originally used could be easily and conveniently upgraded, from home.

What do I mean by upgraded? Upgrading sources means replacing more error-prone sources with less error-prone ones. Sometimes it simply means moving upstream, as close as possible to the original record, for example, consulting an original will instead of a published abstract. Other times, upgrading means replacing second-hand information about an event with first-hand information, or substituting contemporary accounts for accounts recorded fifty or a hundred years later. (Of course, any evidence needs to be correlated with all other evidence in order to determine the most plausible and accurate account of past events, in the light of all the sources and information available. Robert Charles Anderson provides wonderful examples of this process in his recent book Elements of Genealogical Analysis 3).

Here’s one example from my recent rework: ten years ago I consulted and cited a USGenWeb transcription from a book called Progressive Men of Western Colorado. I had not seen the book, I had seen the transcribed excerpt published on the Internet. Because I had seen only the USGenWeb transcription, my citation was “Routt County CO Archives Biographies: Whetstone, John Adam,” The USGenWeb Archives Project – Colorado (ftp://ftp/ : accessed 13 July 2006), citing Progressive Men of Western Colorado (Chicago:: A. W.. Bowen & Co., 1905). This citation shows that I was citing a derivative of the original authored work.

Since the book was published in the U.S. prior to 1923, it is now in the public domain. Both Google Books and Internet Archive offer digitized versions. In revisiting the research I was able to consult and cite Internet Archive’s digital facsimile. My citation became “John Adam Whetstone,” Progressive Men of Western Colorado (Chicago: A. W. Bowen & Co., 1905), 444-445; digitized book, Internet Archive ( : accessed 8 December 2014). Although in this case I didn’t find any errors in the USGenWeb transcription I originally consulted, I still upgraded my research by reading and citing the original book.

Other examples of upgrading sources include replacing information received from other researchers with information from original sources. This is worth doing even if the researcher providing the information is very experienced, with a record of high-quality work.

  1. For concise explanations of source evaluation, see Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof, (Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Society, 2013), 8-16; Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2009), 15-38; and Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 50th anniversary ed. (New York:, 2014), 81.
  2. The column will appear in Minnesota Genealogist, vol. 45, no. 4.
  3. Robert Charles Anderson, Elements of Genealogical Analysis: How to Maximize Your Research Using the Great Migration Study Project Method (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2014). See particularly chapters 1 and 2, “Source Analysis” and “Record Analysis.”
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