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

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

How We Know What We Know in Genealogy

As genealogists, how do we know what we know? Where does our knowledge of our ancestors come from? The simple answer to this question is that our knowledge comes from a variety of sources we can generally call the historical record. The record may consist first of orally transmitted information learned from family members and in some cases, documents, letters, journals and other written sources. In my own experience, I have learned very little of my family history from stories or discussions with family members. In my early life, I had a very limited interaction with parts of my family. For example, I knew my maternal grandparents and a few of my mother's cousins and family members quite well, but had almost no contact with my father's family. Knowledge of my father's family was limited to his maternal grandmother and some of her children and grandchildren.

If we were to look at the personal contact I had with my ancestors, it would be limited to the following:
  • My maternal grandparents and some of their children and grandchildren (my first cousins)
  • My paternal great-grandmother and her children and a very few of her grandchildren
I had virtually no contact with the following:
  • My paternal grandparents who both died before I was born.
  • With the exception of my father's grandmother and some of her children as noted above, I had very little contact with any members of his family. He had many living uncles and aunts but I had almost no contact with any of them. 
Throughout my life, I have been constantly asked if I were related to the "Tanner" family. These questions arise because of the prominence of my ancestral family in settling many parts of the Western United States and Western Canada. Since becoming involved in genealogy over 32 years ago, I have also increased my contact with members of some of my family lines, most prominently the Jarvis and Linton/Sutton families.

I went through this summary to demonstrate how the oral transmission of "stories" about my ancestors was a "hit and miss" affair. I had contact with some family members, but I do not remember hearing any family stories from any ancestors, with the exception of some contact with my one living great-grandmother.

The few stories that I heard first hand, were from grandparents and were usually in the form of funny or unusual events in their lives.

Now, I a very aware that many other people have completely different family experiences. Some friends were raised by their grandparents and heard stories about their ancestors all their lives. Others had less contact with their ancestor's stories than I did. The only stories I know about presently, we those preserved by genealogists or through research and acquiring journals, books and other written records. I made a transcript copy of both my parents' lives, I recorded my maternal grandmother's story and preserved many of the other written documents that make reconstructing their lives possible.

I make this point specifically to emphasize that stories of our ancestors usually come down to us because someone took the time to preserve that information. Usually, those people were interested in history or genealogy or both. In many families, there were one or two people who were unofficially designated as the family historians and they usually maintained records no one else wanted or cared for.

In my family, as I have mentioned before in other posts, there are several published books. These books contain many stories and biographies, unfortunately poorly documented. However, these books have become the source for most of the stories that have been preserved. Beyond the oral traditions handed down to me and these books, all of the information I have about my family has been acquired through research.

If I were to judge the interest in preserving and recording family stories by my own personal experiences, I would not have much hope that even the existing stories would be preserved, but fortunately, much of that is changing due to the increased communication ability of the Internet. Because of my interest and my presence online, I have been able to collect tens of thousands of photos, documents and other information about all of my ancestral lines. My personal experience demonstrates the possibility and the probability that single individuals or small groups of relatives can be instrumental in collecting significant amounts of ancestral history. This is especially true when you also consider the efforts of my daughter Amy and her blog,

If you become interested in the stories and photos of your ancestors, there are some simple things you can do to start becoming the go-to person in your family for all of these types of documents. Here is a suggested list:
  • Make yourself readily available online and demonstrate an interest and active desire to collect stories, photos, documents and other historical records
  • Make all of the records you receive readily available to all family members. Don't try to make money from your efforts.
  • When you do receive a document or photos, make that the center of an online discussion in your Facebook page, blog or other social networking media. Make digitized copies of the documents freely available online.
  • Offer to make copies of any documents you find and then return the originals to the "owners." 
  • Where possible and with large collections, look for an opportunity to donate the collections to universities, colleges, libraries or historical societies.
  • Share you documents etc. online in your family tree program. 
There is a marked increase in the interest of "stories" and other historically important documents. But the question should always be asked, where did all these stories, photos and other documents come from? Arguably, we all benefit from hearing our family's stories, but without the historians and genealogists in the family who were out doing research, as I illustrated above in my own family, many, if not most, of these stories would be lost. Maybe its time we acknowledge our debt to the genealogists. 

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