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

Friday, January 9, 2015

Putting the flesh on the bones of genealogy

Genealogists are noted for their interest in names and dates. Unfortunately, many genealogists stop there in their research. I inherited a huge amount of previous genealogically related files from my ancestors. As you can partially see from the above image, the pile of boxes is highly organized and carefully archived. Actually, it is not nearly as bad as it looks, almost all the boxes of documents here are well preserved and have already been digitized and many of the more important documents have been preserved in archives and libraries such as the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and the Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library, L. Tom Perry Special Collections and the LDS Church History Library. But the pile does point out some important facts about genealogy.

First, there is a lot of paper associated with gathering your family history. I sometimes envy those meticulous genealogists who have beautifully organized files, all color coded and in sheet protectors, but then I realize that they likely spend as much time organizing as they do researching. I also realize that the organization is sometimes superficial. I have spent a lot of time, usually patiently, sitting next to an "organized" genealogist who was searching through notebooks with every page in a page protector, to try and find one piece of information which I could have found with a click of the mouse in m digitized computer files. There are documents I cannot quickly find, but most of the time, I have a copy on my computer that comes up rather quickly after a short search.

A scene like the one above is probably an archivists nightmare. But the reality in this case is that nearly all of the documents stored here have no real value outside of the immediate family. There are no archives, historical societies or libraries that would accept the documents as part of their collections. But the documents are of value to the families and to future generations. What is even more important is that these files add the details to the family histories that are now missing from what people normally keep in their genealogy files. If a family historian has kept most of their records only in an online family tree, they are probably very distant from having the kinds of detailed information about my ancestral families gleaned from all of these family records.

One very common comment I hear when I talk about the amount of information our family has accumulated is that "our family has almost no documents." They commonly say that all the documents they have about their family consists of a few letters and may a photograph or two. My question back is "Have you looked for documents?" Have you spent hours online trying to find relatives who may have some historical artifacts from your family? Have you searched in libraries, historical societies, archives and other locations for documents and photos?

A case in point. My Great-grandmother, Margaret Godfrey Jarvis Overson, was a professional photographer for many years in Apache County, Arizona. It is very likely that almost every one who lived in that county from the 1880s to the 1940s had their photograph taken at some time by my Great-grandmother or her father Charles Godfrey DeFriez Jarvis. I have talked about these photographs online and have posted many of them from time to time. I am sure I have photos that family members of the descendants of those people in the county do not know about. Anyone making even a modest search online for photos in Apache County, Arizona will find my collection. If you want to see what I am talking about, go to Google Images and search for Overson Photos collection.
The originals of these photos, including hundreds of glass plates have now been donated to the University of Arizona, Special Collections Library. How do you know that such a collection does not exist for the place where your ancestors lived?

Putting the flesh on the bones of genealogy involves adding the details to the research that bring your ancestors to life: journals, letters, biographies, stories, photographs, certificates, histories, and many, many more types of documents. Don't complain to me that all of your family's possessions were lost in the war or in a flood or earthquake or whatever, start doing research into the history of the area where your family lived. Find photos of the places they lived. Travel to the those places and see what they saw. Look at their mountains or their hills and try and dream their dreams. In all your searching don't forget the newspapers.


  1. James,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!

  2. I agree. It's a sad story that has nothing to round it out aside from the hard facts.

  3. A couple of years ago for Mother's Day, I gave my mother subscriptions to two different newspaper sites and links to a couple of free newspaper sites. Then we developed a relatively short list of direct ancestors with their children to focus on.

    Since then, I have received over 1400 e-mails from her with links to newspaper articles about our family. Among my favorites is this short mention about my grandfather in the February 8, 1922, edition of The Roosevelt Standard: "Mr. C. C. Collett and Albert Anderton has been putting up ice this week for their summer ice."

    1. Sometimes it is the details that make it all worth while.

  4. Really enjoyed this post, and appreciate your sharing your insights. IMHO, you are LUCKY to have inherited such a cornucopia of documents and artifacts from your ancestors and relatives. And the institutions that received your artifacts are lucky too.