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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Genealogy: Fact or Fiction?

Does historical fiction have a place in the world of genealogy? In the movie screen of genealogical life does the statement "This movie is based on a true story" have a place? Can we countenance adding unsupported and imaginary pedigrees extending into the dim past? Do we encourage embellishments in stories about our own ancestors and claims of relationships with famous people of the past? What about altering historical photos to suit our present ideals and prejudices? Is our genealogy really nothing more or less than a historical novel? Is all this really an acceptable part of genealogy?

I recently watched a newer movie based on the adventures of the Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl. The movie was a remake of an earlier adventure film made 1951 that won an Academy award. I remember seeing the original film in small theater as a child. I saw the newest version of the adventure made in 2012. I understand this movie was the highest grossing film of 2012 in Norway. See Wikipedia: Kon-Tiki. I also have a copy of the book written by Thor Heyerdahl about the entire expedition. See Heyerdahl, Thor. Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft. New York: Buccaneer Books, 1948. My copy of the book is dated 1951 and would be this edition in the 10th printing: Heyerdahl, Thor. Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1951.

We have no doubt that Heyerdahl and his crew made it across the Pacific on a raft. That could be considered to be an historical fact. The original book and movie were essentially documentary accounts of the journey. But what about the movie made in 2012? Are all of the incidents depicted in the movie historical facts?

I remember when I got home from watching the movie Lawrence of Arabia made in 1962. I immediately went to our old edition of the Encyclopedia Americana to see if anything I had just watched really happened and if Thomas Edward Lawrence really existed and did all those things. As I was to find out, his accomplishments were much more impressive than those depicted in the movie.

Of course this has everything to do with genealogy. We tell stories. We recreate the lives of our ancestors, not just with names and dates as is popularly depicted, but with documentation, journals, diaries and other memorabilia. But how does historical fact and a concept of "Truth" fit into all this?

In an analogous situation, as a trial attorney, I learned that there were three "truths" in a trial: my client's testimony, the opposing client's testimony and the decisions made by the judge. In most cases, any resemblance between the three was purely coincidental.

How much of genealogy is based on reality and could be considered true? One of the most common challenges in determining the truth in genealogical research is the tendency for families to "cover up" unfortunate incidents deemed "private" and not shared with anyone outside the family. This can be anything from extreme criminal activity to a minor disagreement between family members. At best, some of these types of incidents, including illegitimate children and adoptions, can be documented from sources outside of the family circle. At worst, they pass into obscurity and become the mysteries of genealogical research.

What is more important to the integrity of the pursuit of genealogy is our tolerance for fiction. We certainly tolerate enough fiction in the form of unsubstantiated pedigrees (i.e. back to Adam) that we are seldom taken seriously by traditional historians, but on the other hand, it does not take adoption of bogus pedigree to make unbelievable claims. I have regularly run across applications for admittance to various ancestral societies that verge on historical fiction. Is there a core of truth in our research or are we, in essence, compiling historical fiction?

In the end, do we excuse all forms of fiction under the guise that these fictional accounts in the form of movies, books and photographs attract people to genealogy and are therefore necessary? My own interest in genealogy began as a result of discovering that some of the stories told to me in my youth had no basis in historical fact. But what of those who never come to that realization? Are we really promoting family history and genealogy if we encourage fiction? How far can we stray from historical fact before the entire pursuit of genealogy becomes nothing more than an historical novel?


  1. There is no one answer to your questions. "Historical fiction" has been published for a long time. Fraudulent genealogies likewise. Family lore ditto, especially as published in the so-called County History mug-book sketches.

    For some cogent comments on the last category, see

    All of this is part of the context for citing sources. Who was telling the story? How was a document created? Can the purported facts be corroborated by other, independent sources? It is up to the keen genealogical compiler to offer what explanations are possible.

  2. James, this subject fascinates me. I have commented before about the dilemma of writing up a meticulously researched family history in the style of a novel, and finding that your resultant genealogical masterpiece can never be classed as "factual." Somewhere along the line, the researcher/author starts to embellish the basic facts retrieved from a reliable record, and hey presto, you've ventured into the realms of fiction. It might be well-researched embellishment based upon the "truth" but the result is still fiction, i.e. made-up creativity.

    When I set out to write my genealogy-based novel "Where's Merrill?", I was aware of the fact versus fiction dilemma from Day One. I decided that verifiable fictionalization throughout the majority of my story was the only way to keep the reader engaged. If an author voices unheard dialogue or creates a visualized scene, regardless of the overwhelming proof of its likelihood, then the writer has crossed the boundary into fiction-land. Personally, I get bored when reading pure historical fact after fact, with no embellishment, and no opinions on the subject matter offered by the strait-jacketed historian. In effect "researched embellishment" [aka fiction] is okay and often necessary when narrating family histories to the mass market.

    I was so concerned about using the tagline "based on a true story" to promote my book that I wrote a separate chapter on the subject. My editor demoted this piece to my blog, and so it became:

    If you can't be bothered to read this piece, consider this. If male ancestor A got girlfriend B pregnant, did B ever say to A, "I'm pregnant" or "I'm with child" or "I'm going to have a baby." Does it matter? You can't prove what words were used, or when A was informed of B's news. But it does matter. How A reacted could have had far-reaching implications on your family history - so how does the family history-teller narrate this delicate but 100% likely and relevant scene into his saga? With sensitive creativity [aka fiction] is my answer.

    With perfect irony, I find that my book "Where's Merrill?" sells equally well in two sales categories, namely Historical Fiction and Factual Reference (Genealogy).

    1. Thanks for sharing this. I find that interesting also.