Monday, May 29, 2017

Genealogical summaries and family chronicles

These days I mainly work on putting together 3- and 4-generation "downstream" accounts of my wife's and my less-documented ancestors (what are called "genealogical summaries" in the journals, and often closely resemble the "kinship determination projects" required by BCG). These give me much better family perspectives on the whole family than just researching upstream for direct ancestors does.

They also sometimes produce problem articles too. Just now there was a young woman who married into my father-in-law's father's mother's Mozley family. Nobody has parents for her, and it now appears that she at least has siblings and was not born in North Dakota but likely came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire around 1903.

Article about problems (as in NGSQ) are tough to write -- the writer has to show how logic is applied to bring conclusion out of confusion. But I'm finding these family chronicles are not as simple as they look. They pose their own writing problems.

The good news is that often it's possible to drill right down to day-by-day or month-by-month accounts of fortunes and misfortunes, thanks especially to the increasing numbers of digitized newspapers and land and probate records. The interesting news is that a pile of facts, no matter how high, does not a story make.

Often I will go back to the work-in-progress and find that I never wrote a topic sentence (usually because I was  just listing what happened without trying to pull it together or make sense of it somehow), and the story and maybe even the most fanatical reader gets lost. The paradox here is to find ways to be both thorough and concise.

Don't get me wrong -- a pile of facts is a lot better than nothing. But the more we (or our editors!) can see and communicate the stories in their lives, the more likely they are to be read and remembered.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Gedney family of Illinois, and why writing is still compulsory for genealogists

Suddenly more than one-third of 2017 is history! Two other articles of mine have seen the light of day:

“Yes, Writing Is Compulsory! Here’s How to Make It Work,” Federation of Genealogical Societies Forum 29 (Spring 2017): 18-21.

I hope this will inspire others to turn their research into readable and documented stories, and not leave an indigestible lump of disorganized notes (which is generally what I start with!). It is not enough to leave a database or a stack of papers. Thanks to FGS's Julie Cahill Tarr for making sure I got it done.

“From Fens to Farms: William and Rebecca (Wright) Gedney of Cowbit, Lincolnshire and Lebanon, Illinois,” Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly (Spring 2017): 30-34.

Thanks to ISGSQ editor Terry Feinberg for helping nudge this into the right length and shape (William and Rebecca and their children), and for instituting footnotes instead of endnotes in the quarterly!

This is my maternal grandfather's mother's line; the bulk of the family came to the U.S. in 1842 (John Tyler was president), sailing from Liverpool to New Orleans and then traveling up the Mississippi to St. Clair County, Illinois, opposite St. Louis. Some children arrived earlier; it was a chain-like migration. William and Rebecca's twelve children, born 1805-1832, had a total of more than two dozen grandchildren. Seven of the twelve lived to have children, and married into families surnamed Green, Wilson, Flint (twice), Lord (twice), Sims, Frost, Eastwood, Barton, Thornton, and Sowers.

I need to figure out the best way(s) to publish the much longer four-generation story, as many family members spilled into Missouri and Kansas while others stayed rooted in Illinois.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Good times at the 2017 NGS conference

* Being present Friday when my friend and colleague Karen Stanbary was presented the award for outstanding article published in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly in 2016: "Rafael Arriaga, a Mexican Father in Michigan: Autosomal DNA Helps Identify Paternity." Even readers not fluent in DNA will be able to glimpse the power in this technique.

* Hearing LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson's eloquent and nuanced talk at the BCG luncheon Thursday, "Condemnation of Memory: Recalling that African American Genealogy Is American Genealogy" -- which introduced me to some new tools as well.

* Hearing presentations by David Ouimette on Thursday ("Silent Border Crossings: Tracing the Elusive Immigrant Who Left Only Breadcrumbs for Clues") and Thomas W. Jones on Friday ("Converting a Bunch of Information into a Credible Conclusion"). Assemblage is a key intermediate stage between gathering evidence and writing it up. Sometimes we can do it in our heads, but in the more difficult cases we need to lay it all out in plain sight.

* Talking with genealogists, both vintage and new. It seems that is now the main thing I do at national conferences.

* Spending several days within a few blocks of the North Carolina State Archives . . . without ever actually getting there!

* Appreciating the ongoing work to establish good standards for the use of DNA in genealogy.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Letting it go

 What do you throw away? What do you keep? What do you restore? What do you allow to deteriorate?

These questions in historic preservation -- the English call it "heritage," which doesn't presuppose as much -- are addressed provocatively, philosophically, and concretely by cultural geographer Caitlin DeSilvey in her new book Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. She mostly discusses buildings, but in chapter two she reflects on her graduate work on a recently abandoned Montana homestead that was "not yet old enough to be interesting to (most) archaeologists and too marginal and dilapidated to be a straightforward candidate for historic preservation." When does an old book cross the line from a memory receptacle to mouse food?

Anyone who has ever dealt with the household goods and papers of the recently deceased will find rich food for thought  -- not always comfortable thought -- here.

"Dust to dust" is not the preservationist's motto, nor is it the genealogist's. But it is a fact. Not everything can be preserved. (And if it could we would soon drown in it.) Saving, preserving, restoring, remembering, all run against the entropic tide of nature. If we don't focus those efforts we're just hoarding.