Opinion

Just the facts, or a little more?

Once I overheard a fellow genealogist complain that his family wasn’t interested in his research and all they wanted “was stories.”  He was a “just the facts” genealogist and I sympathized with his family. Even I nod off when faced with a lengthy repetition of pages filled with nothing but names, birth, marriage, and death dates.  

This brings us nicely to the difference between genealogists and family historians.  What my fellow genealogist’s family wanted to hear was: “Who were our ancestors? What did they do? What was their story?” — not a list of dates.

There once was a rigid school of genealogy that didn’t gather much information about the family except those vital records mentioned above.  Family historians gathered everything they could. Today the terms are used interchangeably; a genealogist is a family historian. But there are still genealogists who focus on “just the facts, ma’am.” The family historian wants those facts and everything else they can learn about their ancestors.  They want to know all there is to know.

For example, my husband is writing a private family history, to be shared only with his maternal line cousins.  He is following the family from the arrival of great-grandparents to these shores to the present generation. He’s checked the usual suspects:  censuses, town and city directories, military records, etc. He’s now asking each of his cousins for their memories of their parents and grandparents.

I am firmly in the ranks of family historians.  As a trained historian I approached genealogy with no training and researched it the same way I researched history.  Turns out that wasn’t a bad thing. I dug out any and all things I could locate and I’ve never looked back.

The definitions of the types of genealogists in this article are extremes.  Most of us fall in the middle somewhere. We fill out pedigree charts and hunt for more information about the ancestors at the same time.  However, there are still “just the facts, ma’am” genealogists. (Two points if you recognize that phrase that was constantly said by Sgt. Joe Friday in the old “Dragnet” TV series). 

Of course, you each have to figure out much time you can dedicate to your research and where your interests lie.  Do you want to follow one line, as my husband is doing right now, or just as many as you can? Perhaps you are only interested in one member of the tree and his/her descendants.  

All that’s important is that we share our love (OK, obsession) of our hobby chasing after our ancestors.  If you do that you’ll inevitably learn more about them even without trying. And, the bonus is that unlike my genealogist friend I mentioned above, your children and grandchildren will be more interested in your work, if not now, then most likely in the future.  

One Thanksgiving I sent information about our two Mayflower ancestors to a branch of my family.  The children were fascinated and wanted to learn more.

See what I mean?

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UMaine and lives in Dover-Foxcroft with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.

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