Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Historical Assumptions Based on Unreliable Evidence


When trying to research the past, photographs can be extremely useful tools. But a point driven home to me this week is that while we can make many guesses about the facts based on photos, we also must be careful to remember that our guesses are just that -- guesses. Which may or may not be accurate.

Case in point. I was doing research for a book I am working on. I had access to a hundred-year-old photograph of a church that the main subject of my book attended, and fortunately several decades ago, someone had enough foresight to get the photo labeled before everyone in it was gone and it would be a virtually useless photograph.

I carefully studied the photograph looking for clues. I made some guesses. I compiled from all sources available to me a list of everyone I thought attended this church. And then I showed my list to the last living member of that church (from a later time period than the photo, but as her parents were in the photo, she knew the history...) and asked her if there was anyone she knew of that should be on the list and wasn't.

She looked over my list, and pointed out one family I had listed as attendees. "Why, they never went to church!" she exclaimed.

"But they must have -- they were in the photo!" I argued.

"Yes, but they only went to church that one day because they wanted to be in the picture."

Wow. It really opened my eyes to just HOW WRONG our guesses can be, and when there are no sources still living... we could state things as fact based on our assumptions, albeit very good ones with lots of supporting evidence, and we could be dead wrong. (I have to admit, it gave me a good laugh too. "Hey, I know we've never set foot in the door before but we heard you were having a picture made today and we wanted to be in it!")

Another example I stumbled across online when researching this particular family... genealogists frequently listed a family (living in the mid 1800s) as having seven children. I knew from my living source, however -- whose grandmother was the daughter of the family -- that this family only had three children. Yet, the genealogists insisted on their accuracy, they had compiled this list from historical sources such as census records. Well, we all know census records aren't terribly reliable, but this was a huge error. My source has no idea who these additional "siblings" are, but is quite confident her grandmother had two brothers only. Further investigation revealed her as correct, and those confident genealogists quite mistaken. The extra children belonged to a neighboring family with the same last name.

So I beg of you, if you do historical or genealogical research, make your best assumptions based on the evidence you have, but never state those assumptions as definite fact. Things are not always as they appear.

It just makes me wonder what else I trust as fact that has been based on false assumptions.

1 comment:

JMom said...

A great lesson, indeed.

I just wanted to thank you for your insight into my daughter's hoarding--from a child's perspective. The last thing I want is to hurt her feelings just bc I don't understand it. Your comment encourages me to be sympathetic.