Family Lore – Famous Ancestors?

I have often had inquiries from “family researchers” who want to find their “famous” Revolutionary War Major, a governor of some early state, wealthy land owner, even movie stars. Their grandmother told them they were related…..

Let me give you an example. “Lucy Hunt” has begun a family history project with two or three generations,  with some primary evidence (birth certs she got from Mom), but more info that is secondhand or undetermined source. As Lucy knows her parents, and probably her grandparents, she likely has gathered factual basic information-dates and place of births, marriages, deaths for example. However, jumping ahead several undocumented generations, to connect to Clara Barton or even further back, George Washington himself, is not valid genealogy.

Genealogy is widely popular today. Commercial online companies and purveyors of of millions of books, videos, heraldry sources, and software, promote genealogy “as easy as clicking online” to find your kinfolk. Lucy and millions of other people new to genealogy and enthused about finding their family, boast of the “thousands” of family members they have found on Ancestry.com. Lucy established a tree online, which is also highly promoted, and attached “proof” such as census, info from other trees, and info found on the database –none of which has she put through the process of proof…likely she is unaware of that step.  Lucy, still seeking her connection to Clara Barton has dug up some stories about the famous Civil War nurse and is excited to find that someone in her Grandmother’s family came from the same city as Clara….Chicago!

So what is the process? How do you create an accurate family tree? Genealogy is the construction of a family history that reflects historical reality as closely as possible is developed through:

  • A reasonably exhaustive search for proof, emphasizing original or firsthand information.
  • Documenting all findings by properly recording sources and citations.
  • Analysis of evidentiary findings; comparing and testing your sources is essential to accuracy of your genealogy.
  • Resolution of conflicting evidence.
  • Writing and recording an accurate family record.

The above are the components of the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) for genealogical research…. which is NOT what Lucy has done.

The field of genealogy has changed in emphasis over the past ten to twenty years . It is still immensely popular as a “hobby,” still commercialized too, but a shift has taken place. Our national, state and local genealogical organizations and institutions now promote genealogy as scholarly research, offering classes, seminars and other resources in pursuit of solid genealogy practices. Universities, libraries, and archives worldwide hold the history of our people and they, too, promote good research standards. DNA also helps identify ancestral lines and those that don’t belong on your tree too!

The other aspect of Lucy’s quest for connection to a celebrity, is that she is overlooking the real people in her family that passed on parts of themselves, in one way or another, to her. One of the joys of good research techniques, is learning about the life of your ancestor in terms of how they lived it, and discovering the person.

We have all sorts of people in our families, including a possible famous or notable persons, or hard-working folk who raised children, passed on beliefs, interests, physical characteristics, love of the arts or a particular occupation…to you.

By researching with good skills, as per the Genealogical Proof Standard, you will create an accurate history of your real ancestors and find interesting, maybe even “famous” people in your tree. For example:

Anne Samuel (1736-1825), Caswell County, North Carolina; she was designated a Revolutionary War Patriot, as per records in the National Archives, D.A.R., North Carolina legislative records archive. Anne Samuel was my 5th great grandmother, “who  furnished supplies to the militia.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping History Alive

In 1976, Alex Haley’s book, Roots, was an instant best seller. In 1977, Roots, became a TV miniseries that broke records for viewership. It was the compelling story of Kunta Kinte, a man captured in Ghana, enslaved and brought to the United States. Kunta Kinte never forgot his African family and heritage, proudly and passionately passing on his ancestor’s names and stories.

Roots and Kunta Kinte’s story awakened viewers curiosity and a desire to know about one’s own family and history. Genealogy, once a primarily scholarly pursuit, was now the “hobby” of people everywhere. In the 10-15 years following Roots, I and many thousands of Americans haunted the libraries, courthouses, archives, cemeteries and other repositories of family and historical data. We used the postal system to request records and kept findings on paper and filed our research in binders and filing cabinets.

Many libraries offered genealogy classes, provided family group and pedigree forms and help to the new wave of researchers. State and county genealogical societies emerged and grew. Existing national genealogy groups reached out to the new researchers and urged them to become members. Of course, the commercial market recognized the potential in the genealogy craze and how-to books, subscription magazines and journals sprang up, as did designer pedigree charts.

Back in those days, many family researchers were dedicated to good methodologies, accuracy and took pride in their findings. Many others were happy to find ancestors and fill in pedigree charts to take to their family reunions. Then there were many whose genealogy research fell somewhere between serious researchers and pedigree chartists.

Through the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s technology and the internet were developing fast, becoming accessible to anyone. In 1983 Ancestry launched a genealogy newsletter, then a popular subscription magazine that accelerated the growth of family research enthusiasts. In 1996, Ancestry opened an online, fee based, searchable database, which was an immediate success! Other databases and informational sites quickly populated the internet with genealogy offerings – most fee based, some free.

Today genealogy is a $2 billion industry and holds 2nd place as the most popular “hobby” in the United States. But is genealogy a “hobby” or a serious research endeavor? That depends. Our national genealogical organizations have changed their message over the past few years, from “hobby” status offerings to greater emphasis on the scholarly research process, documentation and proof standards.

There are many reasons for this change of focus, not the least of which was pressure from research professionals, a question of sustainability of the “hobby” status, and market feasibility. Family researchers were showing signs of frustration, realizing they lacked the resource knowledge and research skills to compile a “real family tree.” Many wanted to “get organized” and understand how to research effectively.

As a result, we began to see a shift in programming and the marketing message resulting in emphasis on research skills, documentation, analysis of evidence and writing accurate family stories. The shift in focus also precipitated new revenue in genealogical resources.

National and state conferences now regularly headline speakers known for their expertise in research skills and methods, organization and writing classes too. The Genealogy Proof Standard and DNA are essential course offerings too. Genealogical and Public Libraries also offer ongoing programming in these subjects – classes fill quickly.

There are still varying tiers of those pursuing their family histories, but the more focused family historian is a rapidly growing segment. That segment needs the libraries, the archives and ethnic museums, court houses, cemeteries, vital records, military papers, historical venues, and technology and the internet too. Perhaps even more important is that segment is helping keep history alive.

 

Bonnie Samuel, All Rights Reserved,©2018

AncestryResearchIowa blog