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

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Why do I care about those details?

I was sitting in a class on U.S. Civil War Records and the instructor was showing how to identify the actual position in a battle that your ancestor may have participated in, when one of the participants ask a very pointed question, "How does knowing which battle someone fought in help me do my genealogy?" I was guessing from the question that the person asking was more interested in names and dates than the details of the lives of her ancestors. She may also have been entirely disinterested in Civil War battles. I was a bit disturbed by the question and the need to interrupt a rather good class to address the issue of adding historical details to the lives of our ancestors.

I think the attitude shown by the question is one of the main schisms that exist in the genealogical community today, i.e. name collectors vs. family historians. Is there any way to resolve these two extremes? At one end of the spectrum we have those who can't see any need for history and at the other end, we see those who can't see any need for genealogists at all.

I guess the question asked above could be considered to be legitimate in the context of the order of battle of an ancestor, but the larger question, implied by the actual one asked, is whether or not we need any of these details if they do not lead us to further our research? I suggest that both sides of the issues have a contribution to make, but even though it is not commonly recognized, they are co-dependent. Of  course it is necessary to identify the ancestor before you can do research into his or her life, but a failure to do good genealogy results in mis-identification and lack of focus. The story of the soldier marching into battle may seem to have little to do with genealogy, but given the types of records created during and after the Civil War, I would think that any competent researcher would immediately see the value of placing your ancestor at a particular time and location, even if that location was a battle in the War.

I will undoubtedly return to this issue in the future, but for right now, I suggest that we call a truce and admit that history and genealogy can benefit from each other.

1 comment:

  1. This is partly why I prefer the British use of the term "Family History" instead of "Genealogy". Using "Family History" sets out my stall from the beginning.

    A probably gross-oversimplification of the 2 terms in the UK is that genealogists originally traced lands and titles of aristocratic families and landed gentry. When people wanted to "democratise" the study, and show that ordinary people could be as interesting as titled ones, they looked at everything else they did and called "family history" into being. Or that's my take on it.