Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Compiled Family Histories

Some of my first introductions to the field of genealogy were several books of compiled genealogies of my family. These were all thick hard-bound books with very poor photos of family members. One of the books had been compiled by my Great-grandmother. In another case, the book was written before I was born, but during my younger years, my father participated in publishing an updated book about the family. These were all what is known as descendency books, that is, showing all of the descendants of a single ancestor. In addition to lists of family members, all of the books had a narrative section at the beginning telling the "history" of the family going back several generations. In one case, a Tanner book, showed a coat of arms for the Tanner family from England.

Since I had no other contact with genealogy, these books were treated as the Truth (with a capital T). Despite this attitude, as I grew older, I heard some criticism of one of the books, that is wasn't as accurate as it could be and that the author had "changed" some of the less desirable facts about our relatives. From time to time, I would look at these books, mostly to see how I was related to someone or to see where my name appeared in the books.

If this were the usual genealogy story, I would now relate how my interest in genealogy was sparked by these wonderful books full of stories about my family and how I owe all of my present interest in genealogy to these books!! Not. Actually, the books were a major hindrance to my genealogical interest. The books gave the impression that all the genealogy was DONE and there was really no reason to do any more investigation. The story of how I finally came around to doing genealogy will have to be told some other time, but needless to say, I did not become interested in genealogy because of these books.

As I started the research on my family, one thing became clear. The books were not always reliable. For example, relatively early, I traced my Tanner ancestors back to the 1600s in Rhode Island. The first Tanner in the line, William Tanner, appears in America about 1680. However, there is yet no evidence tying him to anyone in England. There were no nobility in this line and there could not have been a valid coat of arms. It turns out there are several Tanner families in America and none of them have any proven connection to the others. As I got involved in doing research I became more and more disenchanted with these family histories. None of them had even the semblance of source citations and there was no way, other than doing original research, to verify or refute the information in the books.

Two of my lines came from Denmark. I discovered that every single reference to my Danish ancestors had place names that were entirely inaccurate. I had to reconstruct the entire line person by person to establish the correct birth, death etc. locations in Denmark.

I guess you can say that I became entirely disillusioned about compiled genealogies. As I did more research, for other families, I did find some very fine compiled genealogy books with extensive citations. I could only lament that my own ancestors had not taken the time or made the effort to produce a similar product.

So now, years and years later, I find myself going back to these books from time to time. Whenever I need a quick reference to show a relationship or explain some obscure detail of the family. Do I now think the books are acceptable? Not really. I am still disappointed that they do not have any source citations. I still question the accuracy of the entries and especially question the accuracy of the narrative histories at the beginning of the books. I have still not verified or incorporated all of the family information in the books into my own files. I have been slowly adding the families as I am able to find source documentation to substantiate the information in the books.

Should you look for a compiled genealogy about your family? The answer is absolutely yes. You are missing a great help to get started. But one thing is clear, especially in my case, even with now seven books, most of my line is not adequately documented. There is still a lot of research to do and the lines are far from DONE.


  1. Well, I certainly agree with this! It's a constant battle to appreciate all the work these people did to compile these books and the information that is preserved there and no where else since some of the facts and stories are demonstrably false.

    But as an interesting case, I've been working through the history of the Jarvis family to compile a timeline of the life of Ann Prior Jarvis for the Women of Faith project. I came to this statement in the history:

    "At a post on the way home he heard of the massacre of European sailors. The Chinese war with England had begun. Had he remained he might have been slain with the other sailors."

    A quick look at Google indicated that the start of the Second Opium War fit the story, but as I read into the history, looking into definitive sources (not Wikipedia!), I could not find anything about the deaths of any European sailors during that conflict. I was ready to abandon that tidbit from the family history as another whopper, but then I saw an old book in Google books that said "The Chinese burn European factories Dec. 14, [1856] And murder the crew of the Thistle Dec. 30 [1856]..."

    So, it's irritating to have to take some of these histories line by line and prove or disprove what was written, but it is wonderful to have so many sources available online to track down some of these questions.

  2. I know what you mean, James, about lack of citations. I still enter the connections in my personal software wherever I don't have a name at all - call it optimism. But I put the secondary source in as a citation and hopefully wouldn't publish it as fact. Family books have been a great starting point, especially when one doesn't know where to look next.