Monday, January 20, 2014

Is the story everything in genealogy?

Is it true that in genealogy the story is everything?

Yes -- in a way, up to a point.

I totally believe in stories, especially since they were at the core of my previous (journalistic) life. But loving and seeking family stories is not a good excuse to evade research and proof, or to disregard standards. Two thoughts:

(1) The story is not much good if it's attached to the wrong person or the wrong family. My grandfather thought that his maternal grandfather had watched and waited for a tax sale and bought a nice farm at a good price that way. I've never found any evidence that this happened (although I'm not done looking), but I have found evidence that his paternal great-grandfather did just that, probably more than once.

(2) Often hard-core research in property and probate and more obscure records can reveal stories no one remembers today. I found one while working on a case study for my BCG certification portfolio. I was struggling to trace a family headed by an agricultural laborer who owned no land. I thought they were in Marshall County, Indiana, and I worked all the records I could find and found only three traces there: a census entry, an entry in a book of chattel mortgages, and a brief court record. He had to borrow $90, and to secure the loan he put up "one dark brown medium sized horse, having small head and small ears, and supposed to be eight years old in the spring of 1881. Name of said horse is Frank." The court record came when he couldn't repay the loan and had to forfeit Frank, as well as a set of work harnesses and a wagon. (The story didn't contribute to the solving of that case, but it's burned into my memory even though I'm no relation to that family.)

Standards don't require anyone to suppress stories that are dubious or even proven false. Just be clear about what they are and are not. In fact it may be useful to preserve them. Sometimes a false story or a false piece of information conveys a nugget of truth either in the way it is told, or the kind of mistake it makes, or when it is correlated with documentary evidence. But that's a story for another day . . .

Harold Henderson, "Is the story everything in genealogy? ," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 20 January 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

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