Mark Twain’s Warning to Genealogists

09 Aug 2012

“It isn’t so astonishing, the number of things that I can remember, as the number of things I can remember that aren’t so.” ~Mark Twain


Mark Twain was a remarkable man. Acknowledging the limits of his own memory, I’m certain that he would have questioned everything related to him by others from their own. This is a tool all genealogists can benefit from.

Mark Twain

Memory is a very fallible thing. Give yourself a little test. With no prompting, try to remember to the month and year something that happened in the 1980s. Was it 88 or 89? June or July? Sometimes clues like the weather can help you determine within a month or two when something occurred, especially if you live in places where the seasons change drastically. For example, if you live in Wisconsin and you remember being outside on the green lawn in shorts, the event likely did not take place in January or February.

Now think about the records you use in your research. How many of them were recorded at the exact moment the event took place? Many of them would have been written down with days of the event. Some, however, might have taken weeks, months, or even years before they were recorded.

When so much time has passed, it is clear that people were relying on their memory. How accurate might that be? The problem is that it is difficult to know for certain. The same record might have some information that is very correct, while other information may be more suspect. It is important to analyze all of the data provided by a document and determine the likelihood of accuracy for each fact given.

Beginning genealogists are often astounded by this fact. When we sit down with them to look at census records that show a year of arrival for the immigrant, they are astonished when we cannot find a matching arrival list for them. Checking a second census may give an entirely different year of immigration. “Why can’t they remember when they arrived?” is often a question the genealogist will ask. My response is to ask them to remember to the exact year something that happened 20, 30, or 40 years (or more) earlier. How accurate would you be in your response? And would you give the same response to the question when it is asked ten years later?

The answer is to stop taking everything for granted. Question ever fact in every source. Analyze data from many sources to put together the most likely scenario. And keep in mind this second quote from Twain, which is also a good one for genealogists to keep in mind:

“When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but I am getting old, and soon I shall remember only the latter.”