Be Careful What You Hang on Your Family Tree

It May Haunt Your Family Forever!

When I began researching my family history, I was totally at the mercy of other people who had researched the history of the Daniel Haston family before me.  In most cases, their research records turned out to be extremely helpful.  But, in other cases their misguided “findings” set me on a path that led me astray for a few years.

For example:

The Rabbit Trail To Hestan Island

Hestan Island

There was a John Hastan (or Heston) who supposedly was born in about 1650 on the tiny (1,510′ x 890′) Isle of Heston, in the Auchencairn Bay of the historical county of Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland.  

HASTAN, of local origin from the island of Hestan in the parish of Rerrick, Kirkcudbrightshire.  John Hestan was resident in the parish of Borgue, and William Hastine and Thomas Hastan were residents in the parish of Senneck, 1684 (RPC., 3. ser. ix, p. 567, 569).  Janet Hasten is recorded in Torphichen, 1712 (Torphichen).

Page 346 of The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning, and History by George F. Black, PhD (NY: New York Public Library, 1946).

Then some sincere Daniel Haston family member discovered that a John Haston of Edinburgh, Scotland had a son Thomas Haston, who had a son William Haston who married Allison Montgomery in 1735 in Amelia County, VA.  And this excited Haston researcher shared his “discovery” with other Hastons.  Thus, only on the basis of similarity of surnames, many Haston family members of that era spread their belief that Daniel Haston descended from John Haston of Edinburgh, Scotland and our Daniel’s middle name was “Montgomery.”   So, from that time on the family lore of some branches of our family has generally assumed we are Scots (or Scots-Irish) with Vikings roots.

Hastons began hanging this misinformation on their family trees–recording it for posterity– and it’s still out there circulating, haunting those of us who want to tell our family story with solid facts.  But once people put it in their trees – or hear it from a beloved relative – it is very difficult to change their thinking.  It’s the old, “Don’t confuse me with the facts!” thing.

Tips for "Tree Builders"

I don’t blame the earlier generation of Haston family “tree builders.”  In fact, I respect them (in general) for the incredible job they did with the sources and means available to them.  But I do blame any of us in this age of computers, internet, email, archive-based websites, free long distance phone service, and etc. if we perpetuate genealogical information without being sure it is valid.  

Tip # 1 - Always be skeptical of genealogical information you find on the internet, in libraries, passed along from family or friends, or elsewhere.

It may be good to use this kind of data as a starting place for further research but remain skeptical until you are sure it is accurate.  Researchers who do not document their information with reputable sources frighten me.  Be wary of their work.

We can’t even assume that grave markers, or plaques, or other public displays of genealogical information are accurate.  I have learned that family members of the past who reported census dates, provided engravers of tombstones with dates and names, etc. did not always have their facts straight.

Tip #2 - Don't "hang it on your tree" if you don't have valid evidence to support it.

Unfortunately, unlike a rotten apple it may not fall off and disintegrate over time.  It will probably spread its rotten effects to other trees.

Tip #3 - If you do choose to use unvalidated information, be sure to indicate that you are not vouching for its accuracy.

When I am unable to document data that I think may be worth sharing, I try to make it clear that it is undocumented, it is “possible” or “probable” or someone “has said,” or etc. to distinguish the data from information for which I have solid support. 

More Tips for Accuracy in Genealogical Reporting (8:31 Video)

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One thought on “Be Careful What You Hang on Your Tree

  1. Before computers genealogy was a inter state hobby. You had to travel to find information and relying on other persons notes and work. In regards to the Scott’s Irish reported sourcing I followed my great grandfathers information that he recorded in his request for a Civil War Pension. He was con you the Irish origins of the family. It took years to disprove that information and only by using DNA could we dispute that track. The John Haston, Water Town Ma. Information fit. I am now convinced that in all probability he was an earlier immigrant from the Swiss German family but there is just no proof there with out an intense DNA study.

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