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

Friday, May 30, 2014

Let's get down to the basics

Names and dates in genealogy have been vilified by some lately as somehow beneath the notice of real family historians. But let's face it, genealogy is basically made up of identifying people who are our ancestors. How do we do that without being focused on names, dates and places? We would all like to have elves come and do our work in the night like the fortunate shoemaker, but that seldom happens except in storybooks. The implication of the negative comments about names, dates and places is that somehow genealogical research can be accomplished by gathering family stories and memorabilia. The body of genealogy cannot function without its properly constituted skeleton of hard, cold facts about who the ancestors are, when and where they lived and proper documentation about each one of them. Adding the flesh to the bones only makes sense if the stories and photos and other important external details correspond to the right person. As it is, we are presently creating some horrible looking hybrid Frankenstein monsters in our online family trees that do not have a shred of evidence of documentation or even logic to support them.

The first step in genealogy is and has been for a very long time to gather documentation about what you already know about your family. I talk to too many genealogists who enter names into pedigree charts and then transfer those names to an online family tree without even one source citation. You do not even enter yourself into a proper genealogy without source citations. Our ability to transfer data from one person to another using GEDCOM files and other files exchanges makes it appear that we can build a proper pedigree almost instantly. Add the fact that some online family tree programs constantly suggest links to potential ancestors in other family trees already online and you can build a huge amoeba of genealogical data without a single bone (verified fact) in its entire body. These online family trees are becoming a nightmare monster movie of the amoeba that ate the world.

Basic, well-founded, well-considered, logical, accurate genealogy consists of building from the known to the unknown. It is not a process of see it, add it. We are collectively turning into the online bag ladies of genealogy, collecting every scrap of trash we can carry in our online family tree shopping carts. Knowledgeable, fact based, source dependent genealogists are being brushed aside as irrelevant to the process of adding piles of garbage online.

In addition, the online programs have mechanized the process of adding individuals without allowing even a brief review of whether or not this document or this connection to an existing family tree have any connection to our own ancestor. Yes, the process is made more efficient, but in most cases it makes it harder for the rational, source based genealogist to control. My attitude here is to ignore the garbage that is ignore the daily suggestions I get from dozens of online sources that they have found a link or a record for my family. They do not determine what I research and what I add to my family tree, I do.

Consider this basic question. What documentation do you have that you were born? OK, other than the obvious fact that you are alive and reading this post, have you really taken the time to document your own birth? Now I am back to the questions I referred to above. Many people look at me as if I am talking nonsense when I suggest that they begin by documenting themselves and their immediate family. But think about it. What if each of your ancestors had carefully documented and recorded their own life? Wouldn't we be out of work? Do we really want to pass the job of documenting our own lives off to our descendants, just as our own ancestors did to us? Isn't the basic function of genealogy to stop this needless repetition of research and build an accurate family tree?

Today's genealogy is apparently all about numbers. The first question I am frequently asked when I tell people about my interest in genealogy is how far back I have traced my ancestry and how many names do I have in my database. Really! That is so out of touch with the basic idea of genealogy. I usually brush those questions aside. This reminds me of one researcher I talked to for quite a while who was convinced he was related to one of the passengers on the Mayflower or whatever and had traced the descendants down from the passenger and just lacked that last person connecting his family to that descendancy line. As far as I know, he is still searching.

We seem to want "Instant Genealogist" in box. Something that can turn anyone from teenager to adult into a competent family historian in a one hour television show. Well, the same issue has been answered in the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall. You do this by practice, practice and more practice. I get criticized because I tell people genealogy takes time, work and effort. I am accused of being politically incorrect because I claim that genealogy is difficult and some people simply do not have the skills to do the work. I am accused of being an elitist and discriminatory because I advocate accuracy and knowledgeable research rather than trash. Worse than all that, I am branded a "genealogist" rather than the politically acceptable "family historian" because I would like to make sure I am researching the correct ancestor and identifying people correctly in photographs.

Perhaps it is time to push back and stand our ground. Sloppy, inaccurate, poorly documented family trees are not acceptable. There is no excuse for blind copying of family trees. Facilitating this poor excuse for research and calling it genealogy is demeaning to what I do and what any well-founded and sincere genealogist is attempting to do. Let's get back to the basics of genealogy.


  1. You may be preaching to the choir. I too am concerned about the need to "grow my database" that seems to exist. The future probably holds as much work correcting as the past did creating. But! Well, I also suspect that most people like me at one time did just that. Input without sources. I have been spending much more time citing the sources for past entries than I have researching. Imagine my discovery that only one middle name was on my birth certificate, when I always used both my middle names on official documents. The second name showed up on a Christening Certificate and was the name of my God Father. My wife of 47 years hopes she married the right guy!

  2. The instances you described here are exactly why I keep my family tree on Ancestry "private". I believe that all the copying of family trees is just perpetuating errors. Until I can prove and source an individual I don't want anyone seeing my tree. Early in my quest to find my ancestors I made the mistake of adding who I thought was my great-great grandfather to my tree only to discover 20 years later that it was the wrong person. Every now an then I come across that error in others family tree. It makes me feel so genealogically irresponsible. I learned a great lesson from that mistake...without proper sources its only a myth.

  3. Thank you SO much for this post James. This is a battle I know many of us fight. I know I give similar "speeches" on a regular basis. I too keep my tree private. A family member who was always talking to me about genealogy was proud of the 80,000 people in their tree. Guess what? He is now having to delete thousands of those people as he has realized they aren't connected, have no sources and have no value whatsoever. I for one don't use the FamilySearch tree, even though Legacy will connect to it. I don't like the FTM program that connects and syncs with Ancestry either. Hard work and source verification is what it takes to create any kind of family tree that is to be believed. And, yes, I do have my own birth certificate in my database and most immediate family. Sometimes like pulling teeth to get them to give me the documents.
    Again, thank you for this post. Keep on saying what you say.

  4. When I reviewed my birth certificate I saw that I was born at 12:05 a.m. during Daylight Saving Time. My "real" birthday would be a day earlier. To make it worse, I've always been superstitious about my birth date, which is one of those numeric charms: 9/9/1944, all the digits add to 36, which is a 9 (3+6). Darn near gave me a midlife crisis to see that the whole edifice was shaky....

  5. I have to disagree with part of this post James:

    Re: "But let's face it, genealogy is basically made up of identifying people who are our ancestors. How do we do that without being focused on names, dates and places?"

    In the 2 June 2014 edition of Mondays with Myrt ( I recounted a very personal story of the research that originally got me into genealogy (just scroll down the timestamps to "Tony's Story"). Because of the nature of that research, I had to collect narrative, notes, oral history, recollections, stories, whatever you want to call them. There could be no 'family tree' until I'd processed that narrative data and used it to help me find the relevant people. As a consequence, I have orders of magnitude more narrative content than mere lineage content in this part of my family history, and that in turn made my STEMMA project a necessity.

    I stand by everything I've written about "history" (whether family history of micro-history) being more important than mere representations of lineage. You cannot "know" your ancestors simply by knowing when/where they were born/married/died.

    1. Congratulations on being featured on the program. Great interview.

      It really is difficult to get anywhere by attempting to separate the dates and places out from any personal or historical context, isn't it? There's nothing like historical and geographical context and all the types of sources you mention to find those elusive pieces of information.