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

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Understanding the setting: place, surroundings, people and events

History is not just names and dates. In fact, genealogy, if it is part of the general area of history, should not be just about names and dates. There is a famous quote from a movie that ends with the statement, "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them." Well, there are uncounted millions of stories about our ancestors that are still waiting to be told. Yet, I am constantly bombarded with statements that seeking out our ancestors is little more than a crossword puzzle of filling in the names and dates on a pedigree chart.

We need more than just names. We need more than just dates. We need a sense of place, a sense of the surroundings, the people and the events that made up the lives of our ancestors. Some people approach genealogy as if it were a contest, with the prize going to the one with the most names. if this is the case then why not simply look at all the online family trees, copy as many names as possible and declare yourself the winner.

The stories of the lives of our ancestors is not the side show, it is the show. It is the main feature. Every time I suggest that, as genealogists, we move beyond name gathering check lists, I get snarling feedback that we don't have time to spend on mundane things like the lives of our ancestors, we are too busy pushing back the years and marking off the checkboxes on our pedigree charts to waste our time with stories.

Surprise, the stories make the people and the people make the stories. The two are really inseparable.

When I was a lot younger, we used to try to build towers of blocks to the ceiling. Inevitably, we would get higher than our heads and someone would bump the stack and it would come crashing down. Building a pedigree further and further back in time is like the child's tower of blocks. There is really nothing holding it up and it is very likely it will come crashing down. Stories give a wide base that will sustain a lengthy pedigree. Your building blocks become even more stable when they are made up of complete families, rather than son to father or daughter to mother chains.

Let's broaden our base and build a suitable, long lasting structure. Will your children and your grandchildren hold you in high esteem because you were able to trace your lines back to the 15th Century? Or will they only remember the stories? What if there are no stories to remember?

I must admit that when I started examining my own ancestry, I was more interested in the names and filling the charts, than I was in the stories that went with those names. But over the years, I found that it was only through knowing the setting, the place, the surroundings, the people and the events, that I was really able to be sure the names were correct. How do you tell the difference between five men named John Morgan, all living in the same town without examining the history, surroundings, place, setting, and the events of those people and all of the others living in that same town. Or you could, like has been done countless time before, simply give up and pick one of the five, preferably the one with the most illustrious ancestors that are the easiest to trace.

I get the push back on this issue almost every time I speak or talk about this subject. People look at me as if I have lost my mind every time I suggest that they read the newspapers or a county history. I suggested a town history to a person today and was met with indifference. The person didn't seem to see the need to take the time to order the book through Interlibrary Loan. It was simply too much trouble and anyway, they already had all the names from that town and who cares about the stories. Let's get back to the interesting stuff like names and dates.


  1. It seems somewhat contradictory for someone to looking only for their "famous" relatives but reject looking for stories. After all, fame is essentially due to the accomplishments (stories) that are attached to a person. Even ordinary persons can have (local) fame - stories of family life, of times of hardship, of immigration, of military service, of faith highlight this. Be proud of the less-than-world-famous in your family and find/tell their stories.

  2. You're so right!

    Laura Hedgecock

  3. If all you have are names and dates - who will be interested in what you've written? No-one. Far from paying tribute to your ancestors, a straight list of names and dates (probably omitting their dates of death, as well!) will be ignored and your ancestors forgotten.

    The first time I ever wrote up a family, I made sure to cover background and stories. I confess I was proud that a couple of work colleagues, not remotely related to me, said they found it interesting.