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

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Response from a pretentious genealogist

In a comment to my September 13, 2009 post about collecting names vs. family history, one of the comments named me a "pretentious genealogist" apparently because I "vehemently abhor 'name collectors'." I guess I was also surprised to find out that I was a "self-proclaimed expert" so I went back and re-read my own article. After a review, I did find a few more things to say about name collectors, even the variety claimed by the commentator.

First of all, one symptom of name collecting is a disregard for documenting and sourcing lineage connections. I have no way of knowing if this particular commentator documents his sources or not, but a lack of documentation is an indication that the person has no real interest in the family, at least not enough to find out who they were beyond a mere name. The validity of a lineage is not in the number of ancestors, but in the depth of the understanding of the individuals and families in their historical context. If it is pretentious to document every relationship and every event to the extent possible, I guess I am pretentious.

I am usually quite willing to share my complete files, including all of the current sources, with any interested family member, but I do resent people who then publish the lineage as if it were their own. Usually, it is not too difficult to identify someone who has no idea about the content of their own file, parts of the file are so vastly different than others. A careful documented lineage contains a degree of consistency lacking from a cut and paste genealogy.

I happen to come from a family that has a lot of records, including published family histories and a multitude of researchers. In my initial survey of my family lines, I reviewed hundreds of my predecessor's family group sheets comparing them to determine the accuracy of the prior research and to build a credible family line. If the family sources differed, I began to research original source records to determine a rational basis for extending the line along a certain branch.
I must say that many times I found the claims made by my family members to be unsupported by historical research. I guess to the extent that I built my original family file from the work of others, I too was a "name collector." But, I did not let my search stop there, I continued to research dubious connections in the original records until I was satisfied that the claimed relationships in fact, did exist.

For example, at one point, some of my relatives claimed a relationship to the American frontiersman, Daniel Boone, mainly because his mother was Morgan, one of my family surnames. It didn't take more than a couple of hours of research to disprove that claim. There was no connection between the wife of Squire Boone and my own family. One distinction between a careful researcher and a name collector, is the desire for truth, even at the expense of losing a connection to a famous ancestor. I guess if I prefer truth over a fanciful lineage, I must be a self pro-claimed expert and very pretentious.

The bottom line is simple, I don't believe anything about my family line I can't verify from consistent sources. As long as a fact is unproven, it is a mere allegation.


  1. I'm proud to be a "pretentious genealogist," too! To me, a love of family history is intertwined with a love for history, and I have become especially fond of using social history to expand my understanding of my ancestors. Those who are only interested in collecting names are missing the real satisfaction of genealogy.

  2. I have a lot of names in my tree that I haven't spent time researching and probably never will. This does not mean that I'm simply collecting names or trying to trace myself back a ridiculous amount. I merely log them as I find them on primary source documents. You never know when a name is going to provide a hint to unravel a mystery. It also provides the possibility of connecting with more people out there who are searching similar lines. If I note my great uncle's wife's father's name, then maybe I'll come across someone searching that line and can help them tie into my own. Who knows what valuable information can come that way?

  3. I aspire to be a "pretentious genealogist". It is a goal that I will always work toward knowing that sometimes I will fail.

    Excellent commentary. Thanks!

  4. James,

    I saw your link on GenealogyWise.

    Here's the problem - I do think you are mixing up a few topics here.

    1. People who want to back up to a famous lineage, and create/selectively see data that supports that.
    2. People who are "family historians" and don't consider themselves "into official" genealogy.
    3. People whom want numbers over substance, because its cooler to boast they have 35,000 names than to boast that everyone in their family line has a birth, marriage and death certificate, pictures, all their census info, photos of their tombstones, newspaper obituaries and church records.

    Here's the problem - in aiming at #3, you appear to have ticked off #2. I read your article, it appeared to me as if you were a bit annoyed when you wrote it, so I can see where the tone might have been interpreted as "pretentious" by someone who hadn't been in the field very long.

    I have approximately 2300 names in my tree, but I've been working on it for over eighteen years. I try to back up as much as I can with photos, censuses, church data, and government certificates. I do add in other lines where someone has done the work, but I always check them and usually have more sources to add. And I always list where it came from. But there are lots of people in the tree where I'm still working on the proof, but its necessary to have them in my tree because it can get to the people that do have the proofs I need.

    For example, a brother of my great x4 grandfather, I had listed with merely the census info and the names of the children, along with some possible spouses. Someone randomly Googling their grandfather's name found the information and emailed me, and we eventually exchanged certificates, photos and information. Another example was I had put into my tree one of the ancestors was said to have married a "Ingersoll", with no other source. Eighteen years later into my research, I've got a death certificate that proves my family was right.

    My point is, I'm willing to take my chance on some unproven data mixed with as much proof as I can find. I'm never going to count someone out because they don't have sources, but I do inform them that I am going to check their work and correct it if necessary. And its painfully obvious when I've contacted fellow genealogists using Ancestry member tree that some of them have just no clue what they're doing - most completely innocently, because they didn't realize they made a mistake in just randomly downloading data from the "hints". The difference in my mind comes when they choose to correct it and those that choose to ignore it - their info gets deleted from my tree if they don't fix the incorrect data.

    People from #1, well, they give all family historians and genealogists a bad name, I'm sad to say. But I've found less and less of those and more that because they're inexperienced in doing researching, just add the tree that connects to a famous person because they don't realize they need to critique their sources harshly when linking to a "famous family tree" (see the Anneke Jans and Everardus Bogardus Society for a great example).

    There's not a lot of people that enjoy the sourcing part of doing genealogy, and that's what separates the serious from the not-so-much. Your column appealed to those of us serious about doing genealogy, and less so to the not-so-much crowd.