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Genealogy’s one constant question

The Legal Genealogist doesn’t generally go ballistic while poking around on

Particularly when reviewing somebody else’s family tree, I understand that what I’m looking at is generally at best a hint, and often one that will not pan out.

But the one I looked at last night, getting ready to write today’s “my family” blog post, was so bad — in so many ways — that, yes, I went ballistic.

I’m not even going to mention the fact that the tree traces my Davenport line back nine generations further than any competent Davenport researcher has managed.1 Nor that the key link to get to those nine generations has been thoroughly discredited by careful and competent Davenport researchers.2

And I won’t bother mentioning that the tree’s Baker lineage includes the now definitively-disproved descent from Alexander Baker of Boston — whose DNA is different enough from our Baker DNA to suggest that the common ancestors could be Adam and Eve.3

No, what really set me off was the tree’s treatment of one of my Revolutionary War ancestors: David Baker.

I’ve written about David before — he’s an interesting and complex character, born in Virginia in 1749 and died in Western North Carolina in 1838. And for a man who both lived and died in counties with records loss, David’s life is remarkably well documented.4

But not in this tree.

We can start with the fact that the tree lists his name as David Hollis Baker. David never had, never used, a middle name. Not once, not in any record, not at any time.5

So here’s my question to the tree maker — and for all of us all the time as we research: how do we know? If we’re going to include a middle name in a family record, where did we get it? Where does it come from? How do we know?

And David’s birth is there, too, on 3 June 1749, in Culpeper County, Virginia. Except of course Culpeper County is misspelled as “Culpepper.” Again, that question: how do we know? If this is a jurisdiction that we’re unfamiliar with, how do we know how to spell the county or city or town name?

The next entry in his life story is his residence in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland. In 1748. The year before he was born. Which is a neat trick. So here too we have to ask: how do we know?

That tree

There is, for this “fact”, a source citation — to an Ancestry collection of compiled Maryland census and census substitute records that simply lists a Daniel Baker — not a David Baker at all. So here it’s clear we don’t know — and shouldn’t list it.

I won’t bother with the entry for the birth of his brother Richard, shown as a captain of dragoons during the Revolutionary War. There was such a person — but that wasn’t David’s brother.

And I won’t mention the birth of his son Thomas in 1764 when, the timeline shows, David was just 14 and unmarried. (Thomas was actually born in 1782.)

And we’ll skip the reported death of David’s father Thomas in 1777 “in explosion in his factory making gunpowder for Continental Army.” That’s a nice story. But how do we know? Where’s the evidence? (Here’s a hint: there isn’t any.)

David is shown as having married in 1777 in Morgantown, Burke County North Carolina. Um… there isn’t a Morgantown in Burke County; the county seat was and is Morganton. And there is a minor little problem with that marriage date. David was away with George Washington in the revolutionary forces. He wasn’t discharged until 1778.6 So we should be asking ourselves how we know — how do we know the date of the marriage? How do we know if David could have been there at that time?

The tree continues through the birth of David’s children to his first wife, and then her death, and his remarriage to my fourth great grandmother, Dorothy Wiseman. The birth of her first son, my third great-grandfather Martin, is recorded in 1797 in Bakersville, Rutherford County, North Carolina. Um… Rutherford County? Let me ask again: how do we know where Bakersville was located? In this case, I can only assume nobody checked. (Hint: Bakersville is not, and was not, ever in Rutherford County.7)

I’m not going to prolong this. It’s painful to see the assertion of the death of David’s brother Henry in 1808, when the records clearly show his will was accepted for probate in the Burke County Court in 1806.8 And I’ll skip my annoyance with the assertion of two additional children to David and Dorothy — William and Louise — both of whom are grandchildren, not children.9

I’ll simply close with the proper record of his death in Bakersville in September 1838 (although it’s shown as Mitchell County, which didn’t exist until 1861) and — sigh — the assertion that he then resided in North Carolina from 1848 to 1862. I would ask one last time: how do we know? What source tells us that? (Hint: the list of Revolutionary War pensioners that’s cited for that fact doesn’t record David’s “residence” at all; it’s his widow Dorothy who’s recorded there.)

Now the truth is, I knew when I opened that family tree, it was going to be bad. Any family tree that includes 49,832 people and 31,692 records — the vast majority of which are other family trees — is a likely candidate for frustration.

But so many of the errors in this tree — so many of the errors we all have made — can be avoided or at least minimized if we ask ourselves the one question that is genealogy’s constant: how do we know? And if we can’t point to an original record, made at the time by a person with firsthand knowledge — or if we can’t construct and write out a proof argument combining bits and pieces from multiple reliable sources — then the reality is, we don’t know. And we make a mistake by asserting it as fact.10

No, he was not David Hollis Baker; he was David Baker. He did not live in Maryland a year before he was born. He did not father a child at age 14. He did not live on for decades after his death and burial.

And we could have known every bit of that if only one question had been asked: how do we know?

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “How do we know?,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 6 Apr 2019).


  1. No, I’m not going to identify the tree or the tree owner. My point — now that I’ve calmed down — isn’t to embarrass any individual but to point out how we can all avoid key mistakes in our research.
  2. See John Scott Davenport, “The Challenge of Virginia Genealogical Research,” in The Pamunkey Davenport Papers, CD-ROM (Charles Town, W.Va. : Pamunkey Davenport Family Association, 2009), 7-9.
  3. See Judy G. Russell, “The cousin who isn’t,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 8 Feb 2014 ( : accessed 6 Apr 2019).
  4. See e.g. ibid., “RIP David Baker 1749-1838,” posted 15 Sep 2018.
  5. See ibid., “Stop middling along!,” posted 24 Aug 2015.
  6. Don’t take my word for it. Check out David’s pension application. Affidavit of Soldier, 26 September 1832; Dorothy Baker, widow’s pension application no. W.1802, for service of David Baker (Corp., Capt. Thornton’s Co., 3rd Va. Reg.); Revolutionary War Pensions and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, microfilm publication M804, 2670 rolls (Washington, D.C. : National Archives and Records Service, 1974); digital images, Fold3 ( : accessed 14 Sep 2018), David Baker file.
  7. See “A History of Bakersville, North Carolina,” ( : accessed 6 Apr 2019). Or we could just look at historical maps…
  8. Minute Book, Burke County, North Carolina, Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions, January 1804 – April 1807, Part II, p. 678; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
  9. David named all his children in his 1838 will. See Yancey County Record of Wills 1:30, David Baker, 26 Jan 1838; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
  10. Because, just as one f’rinstance… you know darned good and well that every single one of these mistakes has been copied into other family trees. Every. Single. One.
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