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

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Some things everyone knows (or should know) about genealogy

Before continuing on with my predictions for the coming year of 2011, I was reading a book by Donald Lines Jacobus called Genealogy as pastime and profession (Jacobus, Donald Lines, and Milton Rubincam. Genealogy As Pastime and Profession. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1978) and realized that there were a lot of somewhat obscure facts about genealogy that everyone has to learn or hear. Hopefully, none of these are new to you, but if they are, here are some things you should know: (not in any particular order)

There is a distinct disconnect between the way people actually spoke in the 18th and 19th Centuries and they way they are portrayed as speaking by books and movies. For example, how would you say "Ye Olde Tavern?" Guess what? The letter "Y" in the old script was called the thorn or þorn (Þ, þ) and it was pronounced as "th." So Ye Olde Tavern and The Old Tavern were said exactly the same way (making allowances for local dialects and pronunciations). This illustration brings up an interesting fact, most 19th Century speech was neither as flowery nor as stilted as is usually represented. But the local dialects, influenced by recent immigrants may have been considerably different than modern standard English.

The fact that in that time period people's language was dependent on the country of origin helps explain why there are so many "errors" in the U.S. Census records and elsewhere. It was not just that the Census Enumerators could not spell (some couldn't) but it was also that sometimes what was spoken bore little relationship to English. This worked out fine if the Census Enumerator also spoke the same non-English language but didn't help when the language was foreign to the Enumerator.

By the way, spelling, including surnames, was somewhat fluid until well into the 19th Century and in some cases into the 20th Century. Researchers who get hung up on insisting on a certain spelling of a name or other word, usually have a really hard time finding any ancestors past the time surnames became "fixed."

Most European countries, including England, Scotland and Wales, underwent a calendar change in 1582. Until 1752 there were two calendars in use in Europe (and European colonies) and two different starts to the year in England. You may wish to investigate this problem and make allowances.

Although most people would like to find illustrious ancestors, it is most likely that your ancestors are just like you. Most everyone's ancestors are going to be just about as ordinary as your current relatives. Even today's famous people had ordinary ancestors. Not only were most of our collective ancestors ordinary people, there was the usual sprinkling of bad apples in the barrel; criminals, drunkards, divorces, infidelity, all sorts of the same things that go on today.  If you are looking to the past for fame and fortune you will almost always be disappointed, unless you are, in the words of Donald Lines Jacobus, one of those "armchair dilettantes who conjure lines of descent from their own fervid imaginations working upon the poorest printed sources."

Contrary to most TV advertisements, genealogy is a rather difficult and challenging pursuit. It takes years to gain a good understanding of research and documentation. There is no quick fix in genealogy. You have to pay the price in study and effort to be able to produce credible results. Also, despite the ads, not all of your genealogy is online. Estimates of the percentage of records online compared to what is still waiting range in the low single figures. For the time being and for many years to come, to do some types of research you will still have to travel or hire someone to search for you.

This one is obvious (at least to most researchers) online family trees have no value at all unless they have sources. I have heard a lot of arguments about using unsourced data for hints and possible searches, but on the other hand you can spend a lot of time chasing the proverbial wild goose. At the very least, the person posting the information on line should be honest enough to tell you he or she copied it all from their great aunt or whatever.

Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but it is the lifeblood of the genealogist. Anything you enter into your database should be consistent with reality. Children and not born before their parents. Immigrants don't arrive in the New World before the Pilgrims. People (usually in our Western culture) do not get married while still in grade school. But some traditions are counter-intuitive.  In many European countries, when a young child died, the next child (or so) of the same gender bore the same name. It is possible to have two Johns or two Henrys in the same family if one of them died in infancy. Whatever the issue, question, unusual circumstance, the interpretation should be consistent with the culture at the time and in the place. Before dismissing a strange situation out of hand, be sure you know the mores and customs.

Last (for this post only) but not least, there are no credible genealogies back to Charlemagne or Adam. Even saying that you have such a genealogy puts you in a special class of genealogists and I will leave it at that.

1 comment:

  1. So what should the persons be called who came to Jamestowe, Virginia between 1607 and when the Pilgrims came to New England in 1620?