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Always Looking

By John I. Blair

Always Looking – Some Genealogy Basics

Like many people, I started in this hobby through having my curiosity aroused by family stories and half-heard references at reunions and over the table at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. My family being half-Southern, a lot was also picked up at funeral receptions, sometimes the major family social events of the year (and not grim at all, barring tragedies like untimely deaths).

Over the years I had also obtained copies of a few precious family documents:

  • 1. A photocopy of the marriage record for a couple of great-grandparents in England;
  • 2. A beautifully handwritten list of the names, birthdates, and birthplaces for my maternal grandfather and his brothers and sisters;
  • 3. A fading roster of my lineal descent from William the Conqueror, prepared on an old cloth-ribbon typewriter;
  • 4. A transcription made in the 1970s of a oral narrative by a beloved great-aunt about how her grandmother had worked as a country doctor to, among others, Indians; how her family had migrated from central Nebraska to Oklahoma Territory in a wagon train with their capital literally tied up in the form of 40 head of horses; and how they had been protected from renegade Cheyenne raiders through their mother’s diplomacy and kindness to passing Indians (and strategic hiding of the children in a fruit cellar);
  • 5. A lengthy book-format history of several generations of my paternal grandfather’s family prepared by a distant cousin from Kansas City.

All of these were treasures, without a doubt. And inspirational.

However, when I finally started doing my own research, using the Internet and family contacts to gather data and materials, I was lucky enough, early on, to get some hard, but sensible, advice from a genealogist in Pennsylvania (who prefers I keep her anonymous), kind enough to take me, momentarily, under her wing.

The first thing she told me was “believe nothing you are told, from anyone, family member or stranger alike, without the documentation to back it up.” “Generally speaking, things passed on by family members are always suspect . . . not because folks have lied purposefully, but because things get ‘twisted’ when told, generation after generation.”

“Start with a generation you can PROVE with vital records and get copies of a marriage record, death records, any wills, obituaries, etc.; then move on to the next generation, always proving one before moving along to another. Remember, without proof, you don’t know who the next generation may be – do not skip around from generation to generation, and accept nothing from anyone, without knowing their documentation. The Internet is absolutely filled with incorrect data.”

She also, repeatedly, urged me to educate myself about the history of towns, counties, states, religious groups, ethnic groups, migrations, economic trends, cultural developments – all the contexts in which people lived and moved around. Without understanding the contexts, it’s impossible to understand the people fully. She introduced me to some basic genealogy research sites such as Rootsweb and Genforum. These can cost a bit of money, but provide excellent tools for searching out information and communicating with other searchers. Some of the basic documents that provide hard data are, to repeat, birth and death records, census reports, tax rolls, marriage certificates, baptismal records, burial listings, military service records.

Some religious groups, such as the Mormons and Quakers, keep excellent records about their members and may be willing to search them for your benefit. Because I have Quakers on both sides of my family, that was a particularly valuable resource.

In my own case, I came to reassess my family lore treasures.

Perhaps the best of them is the marriage record from Salisbury, England. It gives names, dates, trades followed, places of residence, all officially documented and certified. And it is a photocopy of the original. Not bad at all.

Then there is the handwritten list of my grandfather’s siblings. Looks pretty good on the face of it, but is clearly a “secondary” document, as it is all in one handwriting, written down at one time, rather than when each birth happened. No signature or date, either. So, although the script is a beautiful, Spencerian hand, inscribed at the bottom “For Mother”, I don’t know who wrote it, who “Mother” was, or where the writer got their information. While I have other sources for cross-checking the names (I personally remember some of these people as my elderly great-aunts and great-uncles), the dates and places are without hard documentation.

The typewritten Lineage from William the Conqueror, while a real hoot, and fun to read over, is virtually worthless as documentation. Again, no credit as to who wrote it, and no information at all about where they got the information. I have the first 6 or 7 generations somewhat confirmed from several other sources, but nothing beyond that.

And the book about the Blairs, while highly detailed and full of names, dates, places, and some great stories and photos, was not prepared in a formally scholarly manner (it’s almost all from interviews with family members, with no census records, marriage records, bibliography of primary sources, etc.), so it is seriously flawed as an authoritative source. I choose to believe pretty much all that’s in it; but would not use it to substantiate a legal claim, if that were ever an issue.

Perhaps the most problematic, in more than one sense, treasure I have is the narrative from my great-aunt. It is a wonderful family heirloom, with the status of having established a chunk of family lore that probably will hold the status of spiritual “truth” for generations, whatever the facts may prove to be. Her description of my great-great grandmother Catharine in the moonlight, riding off across the Wabash River in Indiana with painted warriors to aid as midwife to their women is classic and vivid. We will probably never know if it is factual (and I’ve corresponded with the Miami Nation of Indiana, a Quaker historian at Earlham College, and several local folk from the Wabash County area in an effort to find out); but it will always be a part of our family lore.

The problems with it are obvious: just for a start, the story refers to my great-great grandmother as “Martha” even though her name is quite firmly documented as Catharine. (She’s buried in Warren County, Iowa, where she lived to a ripe old age. I have her obituary.) If my great-aunt could be wrong about that, what else must we doubt? Family lore is wonderful, and should be treasured; but not used as a genealogy resource without full hard documentation to back it up. The story did lead me to the Wabash, to Indiana, to the history of early settlement in the old Northwest Territory, and to the story of Frances Slocum, the Little Bear of the Miami, which I have told previously in Pencil Stubs .

Ultimately, as I concluded while out in California, discussing all this with a second cousin, once removed – also a fan of family history research – it all boils down to what you want to accomplish. Do you want to produce a scholarly work that can be used as the basis for future research by dispassionate outsiders? Or do you want to get the basics down pretty accurately, but preserve the family legends and traditions for your grandchildren and beyond? Perhaps a bit of both? Everybody has to find a “middle ground” between cold scholarship and indulgent fiction; and you’ll have to locate that middle ground on your own. But with the advice I’m passing on in this article, maybe that task will be eased a bit.
©2010 John I. Blair

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