Reorienting the Course of Family History

Vintage photos and letters with title reimagine family history

When people think of genealogy, it often doesn’t elicit much passion. Genealogy is something old people do. It is laborious or tortuous. Only that weird family member who is really into it likes genealogy, but not me.

Genealogy in Antiquity

In the long distant past, genealogy was focused heavily on establishing lineage. You can look to the Bible, Egyptian obelisks, and to Chinese Dynasties to understand that lineage was important. In many cases, it determined the ruler of empires. For the most part, genealogy was similar to completing pedigree charts and group sheets to detail who begat whom.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, many of the barbarian tribes in Europe sought to bring legitimacy to their nobility. In the ensuing decades and centuries, the Christian European royalty ‘traced’ their own lineage back to show they were related to the royal Jewish line, to the lineage of David. There weren’t always records to prove any of these, and examining many of them will show numerous mythical figures (for instance, the Norse gods Thor and Odin) that couldn’t possibly be ancestors.

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As kingdoms and empires rose and fell, the nobility became the peasants and their lineage was lost, forgotten, or hidden. By the 16th century, the Catholic Church kept many standardized records throughout Europe such as baptisms, weddings, and burials. In many places, the church and the government were intermingled and these records became the forerunners of modern civil records.

A Renewed Focus on Heritage

As migrations across Europe and to the new world occurred, many people preserved their documented heritage. Other families lost their records as they migrated.

Often, individuals seeking to re-establish their lineage would hire professionals, and if they were lucky, the professional would compile an accurate genealogy.

In the past, several of these compilations were fabricated out of whole cloth. Far too often, these heritage books would link a person to Charlemagne or other historical heroes when there was no such documented evidence.

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The Rise of the Genealogy Standards

As more and more lineage works were discovered to be fraudulent, genealogical proof became important. Thus, genealogy education changed to stress the need to find documents verifying facts.

If you wanted to record a fact about an ancestor, you needed to have a birth certificate, death certificate, family Bible, or other records to back up the information.

Although the need to prove facts is essential, far too often newly trained family histories would not record details they knew because they didn’t have a record to support it. Sometimes those memories, such as the location of a grandparent’s home or the knowledge of a child who died, are the only clues to the past, but they are lost because they lacked validation (at the time).

Loss of Records Limits Available Documentation Around the World

Throughout history, as governments toppled the new leaders often sought to cleanse their lands of the undesirables, especially those with noble ancestry. Many countries that previously had excellent genealogical records, going back hundreds and even thousands of years, saw families destroying their records in order to save their lives. The genealogical proof will probably never be available for most of their ancestors.

Should genealogy be left to professionals?

Even with a push for documentation, the quality of research still remained fair at best. Most people working on genealogy were amateurs, and amateurs do not always follow a common standard. Today, one could debate whether genealogy standards would rise if only professionals did the work.

The number of professional genealogists will never grow to more than a tiny fraction of the population. Therefore, the way to increase the quality of genealogical work is not to leave it to experts.

Amateurs May Have the Records We Desire

Many amateurs have records that hold the key to unlock the past and break down brick walls. Additionally, they may revisit family lines using a hand-drawn family tree drawn, family letters, journals, or a scrapbook filled with clues that ‘professionals’ have overlooked or not discovered.

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They can also peer review previous work to ensure that, with the availability of more records for research, the family tree isn’t tangled with the wrong branches.

Genealogy Can’t Stop With Lineage

The invitation to do genealogy has lacked a significant element. Stories rarely mattered unless the story could establish identity and relationships.

It’s time to REORIENT ourselves.

If two books are on a shelf, and one is a 900-page story about a family who lived during the French Revolution and the other is a 100-page collection of pedigree charts, birth certificates, and a smattering of journal pages… which one would a person be more likely to pick up and read?

The 900-page novel, even if the quality of the novelist’s writing is poor. The reason stems from the fact that charts and records are exciting to only a few people. A story that might have been developed from those charts and records, but not necessarily, is far more interesting.

People can envision a setting, emotions, and challenges in a narrative form rather than an outline. If outlines or basic facts were more appealing, then we’d have no need for stories by J. R. R. Tolkien, J. K. Rowling, or Jane Austen.

Despite the knowledge that most people love stories more than charts, genealogy has been slow to adopt the practice of recording the stories as well as the facts. A few learned and passionate people of the past kept wonderful, detailed journals. But if you had a poor ancestor, they probably didn’t keep a journal, even though they had important stories to share. Few people took the time to write these stories down.

Reimagine family history book cover

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Reimagine Family History

Thankfully, a new wave of interest in family research is growing, and it’s changing our perspective of what is important. There is a move away from the genealogical focus on names, dates, and places, to the stories that support those details.

Emphasis is placed on preserving memories, photos, and the stuff of people’s lives. Then use all of this information, coupled with local and national history, to better understand those names on the charts. The movement is tilting toward preserving memories rather than only completing charts.

If family history isn't fun, you're doing it wrong and you need to change the way you think. #genealogy #ancestors #inspiration

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