Monday, August 23, 2010

How do we know what we know in geneaogy?

In my last post on this subject, I began a discussion of the question of how do we we determine a historical reality in light of our human tendency to justify our beliefs and can we overcome that tendency? In discussing family history research with patrons at the Mesa Regional Family History I often hear references to "family tradition" or even "family lore." My questions concerning the validity of that family tradition generally go unanswered from the patron. It has just never occurred to them that the story might not be true. As I discussed in the last post, uncontradicted evidence is usually adopted as established fact and most (nearly all) family lore is uncontradicted.

In my own family, there is a rather lengthy book, 408 pages, about my third great-grandfather and his wife. Even though the book is entirely devoid of any references to outside source material and written in the form of a novel, there is not one word of qualification in the book about the reality of the events described. From reading the book, it is readily apparent that most of the the dialogues and many of the events described could not have been "true" in the sense that the book relates actual occurrences, but I can assure you that nearly all the stories are accepted as true by their descendants. In most instances, verifying the details contained in the book proves to be impossible. If any conterminous sources do exist that were available to the author, none of those sources seem to be available in any known repository.

I do not mention the title or author of the book on purpose. I do not wish to get into an argument with any family members about whether or not  a particular event did or did not occur. Once the stories become justified beliefs and part of the family "lore" they take on a life of their own, independent of any objective reality. Included in this category of family lore are an amazing number of seemingly improbable stories some affirmative and some negative. For example, I have a distinct recollection of an affirmative statement made by my mother specifically saying how she was grateful that there were no polygamous families among our ancestors. When I began my research I very quickly learned that not only was the statement incorrect, but that many of my mother's and father's grandparents and great-grand parents were polygamous (technically polyginous). This is the kind of statement in most instances that gets passed along without qualification from generation to generation whether right or wrong.

A similar situation is what I call negative family lore. That is, the refusal of a family to acknowledge an undesirable fact from the past. There are a multitude of examples, from children born out of wedlock to criminal activity in various forms. Some distant relative left his family under suspicious circumstances and none of the family members will talk about it even after all of the original participants are dead. I found one of these situations just recently in class I taught at the Mesa Regional Family History Center. Just recently, one of my friends related that his uncle, who had died, had refused to allow him to see a certain letter written about a family situation. My friend figured the whole issue was now moot since the uncle was now dead.

In each of these types of situations, the issue is historical reality vs. justified beliefs to the extent that the justified beliefs sometimes replace the historical reality entirely and the reality is lost to subsequent generations. I am not advocating hanging all our dirty laundry out to dry in public, but even dirty laundry can contain valuable genealogical information.

Sometimes the family tradition or lore is perfectly innocuous, such as a tradition that the family came from a certain locality, when the true facts are otherwise. In each case of justified belief, the genealogist can either succumb to the tradition and forget reality, or work hard to overcome the misinformation by ferreting out the historical reality, always keeping in mind that even seemingly objective source material may be badly flawed. For example, a death certificate may not give the true cause of death if the death was a suicide.

We begin to know what we know when we recognize that what we think we know may not be correct. One of the first small steps to encountering a historical reality is being sceptical of nearly every fact not substantiated by more than one reliable and unrelated source.


  1. Hi,
    I'm just curious if this book is published and housed in a library? And if so, do you have any plans to write another book refuting any of its claims. Or a book that does not address any of the first book's claims but nearly tells the story from a different perspective, with less lore and more fact that is backed up with sources?

    I do not know if there are any books written on my family because I stay away from them. I did try to intervene on a new edition of a book written about a closely related family I was working with and I asked the author to wait until DNA test results came back but he refused to wait and published the new edition anyways.

    My family has articles that are propagated in county history books every year and every time I read them I get the urge to rewrite them or at least to write my own from facts. It's very frustrating. I'm curious to hear what others do about these kinds of things.

  2. moot, or mute?

    Skepticism is critical, I think! And we figure it out years later...or decades later.

    Cheers -- Randy

  3. I think the Records I am searching for online could be fake not sure. I will ask my Family back home in the Philippines about my Family History. How would I know if the person who give me records online is giving me wrong records of unknown People? I have Poor ancestry not rich ancestry. I will have to ask my family back home if They knew who they were I could get information from my Grandmother's sisters and Brothers.