Free for the starting

Family history clearly means differing things to people. Some folks take it on like a three-month project in their busy lives, prepared to write down recollections, names and dates from their oldest relatives. They organize the information, possibly with photos and make up an album, a wall chart or a website. And good for them. They’ve begun a project too often shuffled to the bottom of their wish-list and others will thank them for their effort, however rudimentary it might be.

In the process of talking with relatives and old-timers, the newbie family historian can hear some fantastic stories. There’s the one about being related to an aristocratic family in the old country but one of the daughters fell in love with the gardener for which she was summarily disowned, so the young lovers ran off to the colonies. Oh yes, and there’s the one about this young guy who crosses the Atlantic on a raft and lives to tell the tale. Wonderful drama. It often spurs the newbie to stick around this family history stuff for the next level of the unfolding family saga. A few discover the job isn’t even done when the names, dates and relationships are collected; it’s just the beginning for those with time and curiosity.

The next stage involves searching out what’s called primary records—certificates of birth, marriage and death; maybe official records regarding pensions, probate, or property. They might start collecting maps, to become familiar with geography and earliest boundaries. They join online mailing lists pertinent to their key names and locales. They may even put out money to buy books about the general history of the area they’re researching.

The more advanced practitioners of family history may be moved to take courses, certify themselves in the skills of researching, organizing, weighing evidence and writing, thereby improving their abilities to do good history. New resources become available every week and within the last decade, for instance, the use of DNA testing for purposes of genealogy has grown so fast that paper records can hardly keep up.

During this intermediate level, family historians can be called on to provide evidence for what they put forward. “Where did you learn that John Boyd Cook was a spar maker?” someone asks. That is the time and place that the probationary family historian realizes just how important is evidence, and careful citation. A reply of, “Aunt Zillah told me” just doesn’t cut it. And if the evidence is deduced from ‘internal evidence’, then it’s the family historian who has to build a credible case to address the question or be passed by.

If family historians even toy with the possibility of pursuing their genealogical study further, they should proceed with caution. The advanced level of family history is known by many as a life sentence. Its practitioners frequently are avoided and quietly ridiculed because it’s believed family history is all they’re interested in. To make matters worse, no one has been known to recover from this chronic preoccupation. As if that weren’t serious enough, qualified historians want nothing to do with them. True, historians and genealogists both begin by looking back but too soon part ways, rarely to meet again or even talk to one another.

There’s an old mealtime grace that goes something like this:
God bless me and my wife,
my son John and his wife,
we four and no more.

Though extreme, it sums up a lot of family histories that are excessively about me-and-mine. In those genealogies, the writer includes no sources, no references to wider reading; they offer neither context nor analysis. A reader could be forgiven for assuming some famous battle was about their family and whichever side they espoused. Another age-old chestnut still encountered in family histories is about how their relatives brought civilization, enlightenment and all good things to the aboriginal peoples they found west of the Atlantic. Variations on that complicated theme occurred all around the world and its consequences have yet to be resolved.

At the realization that the family’s story is about more that this relative or that and how they were part of their place and times, family history begins to move into history. It might be specific. The history of Presbyterians in the province of Ulster in Northern Ireland would be a starter for this family. British colonial policy to repopulate their colonies in Nova Scotia and the Carolinas would be another. Ferreting out early records for Portaupique, Coddle Creek, Spartanburg, Nine Mile Creek, Falcon Township in Arkansas or Nanaimo British Columbia is no small matter. Old John Willie could never have directed us. We have to ask the historians of all stripes and we probably have to ask more than one.

It’s true that historians usually study big questions such as how the deportation of the Acadians in the north Atlantic served English colonial plans. Historians win their spurs, usually at universities, and they have the evidence to prove it. But like family historians, they weren’t eye witnesses either. Even if they were, different eyes see differently. So a variety of interpretations of past events and people comes as no surprise. Both those interested in genealogical history and history-in-general are required to go beyond memory to gather details about their subject of interest. They collect names, dates, actions and what else was going on around their subjects. Then the task of weighing evidence begins and since the quality of historical answers is subjective, the answers are forever open to revision. Debates about historical interpretation could go on till the proverbial cows come home.