multi-color family tree

Genealogy: Follow the Facts

Sitting with my client, I pushed across the table a piece of paper that had carefully listed and numbered a line of ancestors whose names predominantly began with “James.” I had no idea who in my client’s family had produced or found this genealogical chart, but I knew it was wrong. I had narrowed down the mistake the researcher had made in the family lineage to the year 1800 – back to a time when paper trails can typically run scarce.

My 84-year-old client looked at me a bit disconcerted but then quickly engaged as I explained my evidence, along with the stories I had uncovered. I was invalidating this long list of names, yes, but in its place I was giving him names of ancestors AND their stories – of pioneers settling new towns by establishing farms and building churches, mills and stores; soldiers fighting in the Revolutionary and Civil wars; anecdotes of children nearly starving through harsh winters; tales of young men exploring further west and encountering friendly Indians; and more.

Here is the story of your heritage, I told my client. He sat up taller. But then he suddenly turned to that paper of “James” ancestors and said, “But this has been written down as if in stone and passed all around the family.” I wondered how many of his grandchildren had seen this same chart.

I felt bad about telling him that that line of ancestors did not belong to him, but gratified that I could begin to tell him the story of his real ancestors (they were mostly named “Isaac,” by the way). As a recent article in The New York Times put it, “Culture …comes from lived experience, traditions and stories passed down, from actual people who shape our perceptions of the world.” The author’s point is that culture doesn’t come from DNA. It also doesn’t come simply from a list of names – whether you get those names from a DNA registry or elsewhere. It’s the details in the records and other evidence that give shape to the culture of the people and being to shape a story.

Every novice genealogist should be forewarned to do their research with a discerning eye, and expect it to feel like a tedious project. It is. When I tried to verify the ancestry lineage my client had in his files (an initial step of many to make sure my findings weren’t wrong), what I found on Ancestry.com was that many other people had appeared to copy that same family tree – but none of them had any proof. Where were the birth records, death records, marriage notices, land records, town histories, news articles, pension applications, and more? It’s time-consuming work, and don’t assume someone out there has already done it for you. There’s a good chance they’ve done it wrong.

If you want to know about your lineage, why your ancestors made the choices they did, what led them to move and move and move again, you must dig carefully and diligently – and trust me, you may be rewarded with discoveries you never expected. And that will be your story.

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