Maybe you’ve seen it. The latest Internet meme making the rounds of Facebook shows an A.1. sauce bottle with a hand drawn arrow to the words above the brand name that read, “Est 1862.” The meme states “So In The Middle Of The Civil War Someone Was Like “You Know What This Country Needs? A Delicious Steak Sauce.”
The American Civil War was fought from 1861-1865. So the meme does seem to make sense. After all, weren’t people too busy to invent steak sauces during the Civil War?
This meme reminds me of online family trees. Online trees are a great visual tool to help us find family history information. Like a meme, many of those online trees appear to make sense but we need to remember that with all things, looks can be deceiving. So how do we take what we see and verify that it is correct? Analysis of what you find is important and three steps you could use in analyzing family tree information is to question everything, dig deeper, and use sources to verify “facts.”
1. Question Everything and Don’t Assume
First, there’s a big assumption for those reading that A.1. meme. It may make sense to you because you assume A.1. is an American invention, after all Americans are familiar with this condiment. When I initially saw this meme my first reaction was “yeah, that is weird.” But then I started Googling to not only make sure the image wasn’t doctored (did it really say 1862?) but to also see if the “historical” facts stated were actually the facts.
We may also make assumptions about the online family trees we come across. When we see a tree with source citations and maybe even real photos instead of the website’s default male and female silhouettes we assume the tree has accurate information. But, take a little longer look. Does it make sense? Is there anything that right away signals a problem? How does that researcher know the information they have added? Could they have carefully analyzed the 20,000 people in their family tree?
2. Dig Deeper
I carefully read the A.1. meme and realized that while yes, 1862 was during the American Civil War, was A.1. a U.S. creation? Could it have been “invented” prior to 1862, after all, what does “established” 1862 mean on a sauce bottle?
Online family trees also require a careful reading and they should be explored and verified not just copied. Even “good” looking trees that appear to be correct can be problematic. We may look for source citations in that online tree but is this enough? Consider this, I was researching for a genealogy TV show when I was asked to verify an online tree that showed a Civil War ancestor. The researcher/descendant’s tree looked really good, everything seemed to be correct. However, all of the sources were from that particular online subscription website and none were from archives and libraries. Plus, one important source that was missing was the veteran’s Civil War pension file. The descendant hadn’t seen the need to pay the money for that file because everything looked correct. I totally understood why she hadn't ordered it but to be thorough I went ahead and had a researcher pull the file at the National Archives. Once I read the almost 200 pages the file contained I realized that, unfortunately, that veteran was not related. This was a case of a same name problem and the man in the family tree who was her ancestor had not served in the Civil War. This fact would have not been uncovered without that pension file. Sometimes things look good but further research into original records disprove those “facts.”
3. Use Sources to Verify “Facts”
A quick Google search provided the answer to my questions about the A.1. meme. A.1. was not “invented” in the United States and it was actually decades older than its “established” date on the label. A press release issued by Kraft Foods in 2014, explained the sauce’s history: “Invented in the 1820s by the chef of King George IV, and commercialized in 1862 for the masses, A.1. was marketed as a high-quality, do-it-all "saucy sauce different from any other, appreciated on Welsh rarebits, broiled lobster and English mutton chops." In the 1960s, the brand shifted focus to beef and the product was renamed A.1. Steak Sauce.”
So it was first invented in the early 19th century in England but then was “commercialized in 1862 for the masses.” No, no one was sitting around war torn America contemplating, “how can I make steak taste better?” (well maybe someone was but not the person who created A.1.).
Online trees should not only include sources but should be thoroughly analyzed. Use that online tree for clues or hints but then ask yourself what sources are used to verify the facts? What sources are missing? What does that record tell you? Look at each record carefully. Do you come to the same conclusion as the researcher who added that records to their online tree? Research is more than just collecting documents or information, it's also about analyzing that information.
Don’t Believe Everything, Even if Your Mom Posted It on Facebook
One day my mom asked me about a distant family member she had known and I replied that he had died. She asked me how I knew that and I told her he is listed in the Social Security Death Index. She then replied she wanted to see his death certificate. I was taken aback that she didn't believe me but in actuality she was doing something I would encourage a family history researcher to do, thorough research and analysis.
Online memes are posted and reposted because they are visual short messages that either resonate with the reader's preconceived beliefs or seem plausible. This could also describe online family trees. There’s no doubt we benefit from online trees but we need to make sure to remember that something that “looks good” may be deceiving. Our work as genealogists not only encompasses finding information but also analyzing it.
 “After 50 Years, A.1. Steak Sauce Ends Exclusive Relationship With Beef, Drops "Steak" From Name And Friends Other Foods,” Cision (https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/after-50-years-a1-steak-sauce-ends-exclusive-relationship-with-beef-drops-steak-from-name-and-friends-other-foods-259402271.html: accessed 11 January 2019).
Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.