Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Learning to ask the hardest question

One of the essential, least expected, and least polite questions in beginning genealogy is also the simplest:

"How do you know?"

In the beginning, we have to ask the family member who is sure that your Websters are all related to Daniel Webster . . . somehow.

Later, we have to ask the helpful stranger who responds to an on-line query by sending you a virtual pile of alleged information about your mutual ancestors.

Later, we have to ask the client with preconceived opinions as to what more research will turn up.

Without this question, it's all for nought. No point in learning about citations if we don't know what to cite. No point in putting together a (nonfiction) book or article about the family.

To ask this question is to step out from the comfortable home hearthside into the cold still outdoor air of history. It also challenges others to do the same.

The people who ignore the question are happy with their mythology (some of which may well be true). Those who object indignantly to the question want the credibility of calling themselves genealogists without doing the work. Those who answer and try to improve their answer are on the road to success.

Harold Henderson, "Learning to ask the hardest question," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 27 June 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Judy G. Russell said...

All the Websters. Right. Like my Buchanan cousin who said we were descended from ancient Irish kings based solely on the surname. The fact that the rest of us can't get back beyond James Buchanan (wife Isabella Wilson) who died in Maryland around 1751 is just a detail...

Angela said...

And to the advanced genealogist - "How do you know?" turns into "Where is your written statement of proof?" It is not enough that we have found all the pieces and put them together correctly, if we cannot share the answer with others.