Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Dark Tunnel of Time

Genealogists are great believers in uniformitarianism. Unfortunately, assumptions that conditions in the past were the same as they are today may have once applied to the study of geology, but it is fatally inappropriate for genealogists. As a methodology, assuming that conditions today were the same as those in the past leads researchers into dead ends and research traps. How is this belief in uniformitarianism manifested? Usually as a woeful lack of knowledge about history and particularly, the history of the area where the genealogist is researching.

Perhaps a definition of uniformitarianism would be helpful. It was first defined back in the 1830s by Charles Lyell, a geologist, in a multi-volume work:

Lyell, Charles. Principles of Geology: Being an Inquiry How Far the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface Are Referable to Causes Now in Operation. 1834.

A current definition of uniformitarianism comes from Wikipedia: Uniformitarianism:
Uniformitarianism is the assumption that the same natural laws and processes that operate in the universe now have always operated in the universe in the past and apply everywhere in the universe.
This sounds harmless enough, but genealogists are not dealing with rock strata. They are dealing with people whose technological, cultural, social and political lives change dramatically through time. These changes include naming patterns, family structures, laws, political boundaries, social organizations, governments and almost every other aspect of history that I could possibly think to include. By the way, geologists have dramatically altered their way of viewing the past since the 1800s and uniformitarianism, as proposed by Lyell, has been extensively modified.

Let me give a trivial and very simple example of what I am talking about. It is the practice of recording place names. I wrote about this recently when I pointed out one of my ancestors purportedly born in South Kingston, Washington, Rhode Island, United States in 1630. I could give hundreds of examples of this same issue. Of course, this particular example is only the beginning.

In the title to this post, I refer to "the dark tunnel of time." For many genealogists, peering into the past is like exploring a vast cavern or tunnel with a weak and faulty flashlight. They see only small glimpses of what is waiting just outside of their weak beam of light and when they record what they see, the view is so narrow as to be totally useless at best and misleading at worst. In these dark and dismal conditions, the genealogist reverts to imposing what he or she knows about today on the past; of course, if we have a city, county, state and country today, those conditions must have always existed.

Here are some concrete and illuminating suggestions for making your way out of the dark tunnel:

  1. Take time to read a good general history of each country where your ancestors lived. 
  2. Take time to read a good general history about the states, provinces and other areas where they lived.
  3. Extend this investigation down to the local level. Read books on the history of the places where your ancestors lived.

If the person who added the Rhode Island entry had stopped, even for a very short time, and thought about the reality of the situation, perhaps the entry would not have existed. But then again, I find the same problems of understanding and reporting the past as if it were the present every time I examine anyone's online family tree.


  1. I fault for these types of location entries. Auto fill often puts locations in the blank that you don't intend to have there. If you don't catch it, it gets entered wrongly. When I have an entry for a location that had a name change I enter the name that it was then and add a note about the name change.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I guess it is time to explain about "standardized place entries" again.