In researching an answer to a question about Christian Penn, I ran across something I had not known before and considered interesting about her father-in-law, that he was a Mayflower passenger (which I did know) and that he was executed for the murder of a fellow passenger (which I had not known). So I asked a question "what-mayflower-passenger-was-executed-for-murder" and answered it myself. The answer was voted down because it was a factoid I'd entered myself and the question was closed as off-topic.

I now understand I should not have answered the question myself based on "is-it-ok-to-ask-questions-to-which-you-already-know-an-answer" and the fact that genealogy is still in beta.

The closing for off-topic surprised me at first since it was clearly family history in my mind (a significant number of Mayflower descendants are descended from John Billington including a former US President) and I discovered while researching a genealogy.se question. Some of the discussion on 'history.se vs genealogy.se' focuses on ethnic groups vs individuals but this was an individual. It was off-topic so that implies it could not be improved to be on-topic (eg by including I found while researching information on his daughter-in-law Christian Penn and this might explain why not much is written about that family). So that led me to try to understand what facts belong and which do not belong, and asking this meta question so our FAQ could be improved.

What should we add to the faq "ask/don't-ask" so questions like this can be avoided in the future and closers can point to specifics in "ask/don't-ask' section of FAQ?

In general, I think all questions voted closed as off-topic should prompt discussions in meta and lead to improvements in FAQ.


4 Answers 4


As with most genealogical questions, context is of primary importance. The difference between a Trivial Pursuit question and a family history inquiry may be found in the reason the question is being asked.

In this case, investigations into the apparent consequences of his early and sudden death (such as a widow living in poverty or a grandson adopting a new surname) could make the fact of his execution a relevant subject.

Taken in isolation, the question is no more genealogical than "How many vertebrae are there in a giraffe's neck?". Arguing that someone's ancestor made the discovery of the correct answer can not rescue that question either.

Another factor that might redeem a question about which there is doubt would be the capacity for the answer to illustrate a general principle or technique that others could apply. If reporting the execution of Billington afforded some insight into the need of the fledgling colony to establish a system of criminal justice records, then it may be of general value.

  • 2
    That sounds pretty straight forward, at least in my mind. This site is about the subject and implementation of Genealogy — In the most laymen's terms, the study of family lineages and the processes to determine them. This site cannot reasonably become a place to ask interesting factoids about people and their accomplishments simply because they have decedents. Oct 30, 2012 at 15:35
  • @RobertCartaino Per your answer to meta.genealogy.stackexchange.com/q/43/56, would you still consider this an early site?
    – Luke_0
    Oct 30, 2012 at 18:16
  • 2
    @Luke I would... although I feel like I'm being trapped into agreeing about something without context. grin Oct 30, 2012 at 19:21
  • @Fortiner - What wording would you recommend be added to FAQ so it's more obvious to me and others what are in-scope and what are not?
    – Duncan
    Oct 31, 2012 at 10:51

The problem wasn't that you asked and answered your own question. Instead, the problem I see is in the quality of the question and the answer. As Fortiter says, it sounds more like a trivia question than a problem about a real, actual problem that you're facing.

Here's the thing about that little blurb in the blog and FAQ. It's easy for someone to ask a good question about a real, actual problem. But to ask something you already know the answer to and make it sound legitimate takes considerably more effort.

One thing that can help you is this: You did something to find that answer. How did you find it? What process did you follow? The process you used is perhaps just as interesting, if not more interesting, than the actual results!

Consider this as an example:

Q: A friend of mine is searching for an ancestor who may have traveled on the Mayflower. He checked the records at site X, and that led him to searching on site Y, which contains a lot of records from passengers on the Mayflower. There is no sign of this persons ancestor after arriving in the New World. Why are we not able to locate what happened to this person after he arrived? What would be a reason for this disappearance, and what should I try next to hopefully locate this person?

A: There were not very many deaths on the Mayflower. Most of the deaths to the passengers occurred after arriving in the New World. Therefore, this death was recorded differently. I did a search of X and located some information about deaths at sea during travels from Europe to America, and I discovered that X had died on the ship as a result of .... ... .... To see this for yourself, visit site X and enter these search terms.

Keep in mind this is just an example, so please ignore any factual errors on my part. However, I really think your question, and the answer, could be significantly improved to focus on the process. Then at the end, you could announce the result, sort of as a demonstration of the type of reward the process is capable of yielding.

This would also give you an opportunity to show some proof, as you basically make this claim in the answer without telling us how we can verify it. Since you found this person's ancestor, I'm almost certain the community would enjoy learning how you got from point A to point B.

Therefore, just because the question and answer is closed and downvoted, don't let this stop you from trying to improve it. Think of it as a learning experience, as well as an opportunity to create a great Q&A piece that could very well be reopened and upvoted. (There are no guarantees though, but it doesn't hurt to try!) Good luck!

  • are you saying that genealogy.se is just about the process, not about the facts discovered? A different meta question (meta.genealogy.stackexchange.com/questions/3/…) addresses that and my conclusion from answers is genealogy.se must address facts as well. What facts are appropriate? How should FAQ be modified to reflect what is and what isn't appropriate?
    – Duncan
    Oct 31, 2012 at 10:58
  • Wrt continuing - of course I will. That's one reason I turned the experience into a meta question. But wrt your comment on turning it into a good question - I thought closed as off topic implied do not continue - as opposed to comments with suggestions on how to improve
    – Duncan
    Oct 31, 2012 at 11:01
  • @Duncan My naive understanding is that comments on an open but unanswered question are telling you to "tweak" the original submission. Closing the questions tells you that the community thinks that major work is required to get it right. Only you are in a position to decide whether the effort required to have it reopened will be worthwhile. One of the reasons that I have answered more questions than I ask is that I can take half a day to write a good question.
    – Fortiter
    Oct 31, 2012 at 11:10
  • Hi @Duncan, I don't think questions about facts discovered are bad, but the "facts-only" questions tend to sound like trivia questions. If they instead sounds like a real, actual problem you're trying to solve, even if you know the answer already, then that makes it even better. Remember, we're here to learn, so if the only purpose of your question is to regurgitate facts, well... that's not bad, but it's better if you can also include the process you followed. The way to do that is by asking the question as if you're looking for a friend's ancestor, like it's your problem too. ;)
    – jmort253
    Oct 31, 2012 at 15:13
  • @Duncan - [cont'd] - Look at some other upvoted facts-only questions (if there are any) and compare them to your post. When I first saw your post, it read like "I know something... wanna know what that is", and I think a better way is to pretend like you're actually the person with the problem, explaining what you tried, where you're stuck. Then switch roles and play the answerer. Stick to the Q&A. :) Hope this helps! :)
    – jmort253
    Oct 31, 2012 at 15:17
  • I asked this question on meta not to draw attention to the other question but to modify the faq to give guidance on what is appropriate (ie I'd rather have read that guidance before I'd asked my original question). I am still not sure what the guidance is (ie the wording to add to the faq). Do you have suggestions?
    – Duncan
    Nov 6, 2012 at 3:49
  • Hi @Duncan, I'm not 100% sure how to really cover that in the faq. To be honest, there's so much information that it's difficult to cover it all. This is why SE encourages the more experienced users to step up to the plate and help others. Also, I don't think your question falls into the "don't ask" section. The only reason I think it wasn't accepted is just how you worded it, and again, I really think there's value there if you (or someone else) were to edit it with my suggestions in mind. ;) Good luck!
    – jmort253
    Nov 8, 2012 at 8:11

Certainly crime in the early settlements is something that impacted on the lives of our ancestors, and in this specific case, Duncan, your ancestors!

We already know it is interesting, what we have to figure out is your lingering question about the event.

Writing great questions isn't easy. I hope you'll give this one another shot from a renewed perspective. --GeneJ

  • I updated the 'Trivial Pursuit' question a few days ago (but it's still closed).
    – Duncan
    Nov 6, 2012 at 3:47
  • As an aside, I'm not descended (that I know of) from that Mayflower passenger - I ran across it when helping another and I mistakenly thought it would be appropriate for this site.
    – Duncan
    Nov 6, 2012 at 3:47
  • I think these topics are relevant/appropriate; it's just sometimes harder to cast the question in the right light.
    – GeneJ
    Nov 6, 2012 at 4:02

Of benefit to members old and new, is the cue word, "Should" as in "Should I ...?"

Often, when a question infers "Should I [do this or that]?" it has the potential of being interpreted like a poll question (even if not intended).

See Fortier's comment here: Is it crass to record cause of death? What about for suicide?

And my earlier edit, to the question that originally read, "Should step, foster, and adopted relationships be included in descendant charts and reports?" Are there standards for including step, foster, and adopted relationships in descendant charts and reports?

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .