Wednesday, April 12, 2017
Adding the Flesh to the Bones
Take a look at your family tree. Is it composed of a series of skeletons? Or does it represent flesh and blood people? If all you have recorded is a name, a date or two and a generalized place, you are looking at the bare skeleton of an ancestor. Wouldn't you like to see what they really looked like and who they really were?
The real benefits of fleshing out the entries in your family tree go well beyond merely establishing an ancestor's appearance, fleshing out the ancestor includes seeing them as real people, who lived in real places and had families and occupations and lived real lives. The further benefit comes from establishing a defensible and consistent family line; not one built on conjecture and name matching.
What makes up these ancestral skeletons? The answer is simple: a narrow-minded focus on "vital records." If all you know about someone is their birth, marriage, and death how do you know you have the right person? Granted, if you are doing research in the United States in the last hundred years or so, you are likely to pick up a lot of information about your ancestors that you may not realize that you actually have acquired. For example, how closely have you examined those ubiquitous U.S. Federal Census Records? Have you recorded the occupation of each of your ancestors and their family members? Did they own real estate? Have you researched their deeds and land ownership? How much more information have you ignored?
Granted, if you actually did all this for each of the people on your family tree, you would be creating a huge database, but so what? Don't we have a dichotomy here? On one hand, we have people who are patting themselves on the back for filling in some blanks on a pedigree form and on the other hand we have researchers who are finding real historically placed people.
This brings me to a common situation that I find when I'm helping patrons research their families. I usually begin the process by examining the details of the information that they already have recorded. I start with the person first listed on the pedigree chart. Of course, this assumes that the patron has reached the point of recording the information that they know about their parents and grandparents. Next, I asked the patron a simple question: who are these people? The patron is usually surprised at the question because they have never thought about anything more than the names on the page. I ask about where the people lived, where they worked, what churches they belong to and so forth. The point of my asking these questions is to determine the degree to which the patron is aware of the context of the lives of his or her ancestors.
As I go through this process, I inevitably find a point at which the information recorded by the patron is no longer supported by records or documents. What is disconcerting is that usually there are names going well beyond the point at which the family lines are documented. Not only does the patron have no idea who the people are who are listed as ancestors but also they have no idea if they have the right people or not. The fleshing out process is not just an interesting historical exercise it is indispensable in maintaining accuracy.
Where do you place yourself in this historical process? Are you a name gatherer? Or have you finally realized that genealogical research involves more than just names, dates, and places. Finally, she would point out that some of them are the places properly and accurately recorded, but that is a topic for another post.