New England Historic Genealogical Society - Founded 1845
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Scholarly Issues In Genealogy: At the Beginning...
Published Date :
January 11, 2002
The question of scholarship is sure to lead to groans. In any group of genealogists, someone is certain to say, "I'm doing this only for my own family. Why should I worry about being 'scholarly' as long as I'm sure that I'm right!" And all of us remember with fear and trembling our days of writing term papers in high school or college, and the angst we went through to be sure that we had all the
s correct, let alone any stray
s. All of us had teachers who seemed to believe that their own method of footnoting was dictated by a burning bush. And now, as a teacher of freshmen English, I see the same look of trepidation (and occasional loathing) on college freshmen's faces when I assign the semester research paper.
So it is also with trepidation that I begin this column, since I know that I am writing about some of the most important things for anyone interested in genealogy to master but also that I may bore the bejesus out of some readers no matter what I say! (Someone once suggested that the way to solve the controversy over sex education in the public schools was to assign it to the English teachers, who would make it so boring that the controversy would disappear. This, of course, ignores the possibility that it might also eliminate future generations.)
What do we mean when we say 'scholarship'? Generally, we mean two things that work together: (1) the process of reaching reliable conclusions based on contemporary evidence and critical analysis, and (2) the technique of providing readers with the sources of our information. The first is the very basis for careful research. We have all seen books and articles that are carefully "documented" (a term we shall discuss below) and yet reach some of the most wrong-headed conclusions. Sometimes ignorance of the customs of several centuries ago is at the root of the problem, as in the case of a writer who invented an unknown uncle of a seventeenth-century man who mentioned several "cousins" in his will. Or the genealogist who concluded that William Butler Jr. must have been the son of William Butler Sr. because of our modern usage of "Jr." and "Sr." Or the family association that insists that a man born about 1660 married two sisters (fortunately, in succession). Experience with early customs should instead have told the researcher that three centuries ago "cousin" most often mean "niece" or "nephew") that "Sr." and "Jr." (as well as "3rd, 4th," and so on) distinguished individuals of the same name by their ages and said nothing necessary about a relationship between them, and that a marriage to a sibling of one's deceased spouse was morally and legally incestuous and on those very rare occasions when it did occur would result in legal action. All these errors are found in genealogies that are heavily- though not well-researched.
Sometimes absurd conclusions grow out of what we call the "possible improbable." Some years ago, a book appeared claiming that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that his bloodline continued through the Merovingian dynasty of France to the present day. The authors' technique was to present an unlikely but not impossible hypothesis, and then a few pages later assume that this "possible improbable" was proven and build more improbabilities upon it. In less obvious cases, we are not dealing with the "possible improbable," but with something that is quite possible but remains to be proven. Thus relationships are often assumed on the basis of other connections between individuals -- for instance, that John Smith's wife was William Jones's daughter because the two men wit- nessed each other's deeds.
"Documentation" is what we most shudder at when we recall our term-paper days. It means at least two different things. First, we mean supporting our conclusions with contemporary evidence: the actual records -- not limited to pieces of paper -- created by and for our ancestors. Second, we mean the form of citation: how do we reveal to our readers the sources of our information? What is important here is not whether we use the Chicago Manual of Style form, or APA form, or MLA form, or "in-text" citations, or footnotes, or endnotes, but that we tell our readers what our source for each piece of information is. Ultimately, we must make it possible for other genealogists to retrace the process by which we reached our conclusions.
In genealogy we learn through experience and example. I shudder to reveal that when I started working on my own family, I accepted what I found in print unless I found something else also in print that contradicted it. I still remember the delight I felt when I found the claimed royal descent of my ancestor Henry
Herrick, a seventeeth-century immigrant to Salem, Massachusetts. The delight turned to embarrassment when I later discovered Meredith Colket's article published in
over sixty years ago showing that the origin claimed for Herrick almost certainly applied instead to his namesake in Virginia. Donald Lines Jacobus, usually considered the finest American genealo- gist, who is also the source for the example about the genealogist who invented an uncle, wrote about an acquaintance of his who charged someone a certain amount "per ancestor." This genealogist consulted Arnold's
Vital Record of Rhode Island
without realizing that it takes more than compatible birth, marriage and death records to prove a line of descent. This column will also address the process of reaching sound conclusions.
In other words, I hope to discuss the whole wide range of genealogical scholarship. The next installment will consider scholarly genealogical journals and what we should be getting out of them -- especially out of articles that don't discuss our own families. For the past seven years, I have been writing editorials for each issue of
, and some of these columns will revisit subjects raised in those editorials, just as future
editorials may grow out of this column. But in every case, the material will be reworked. These columns are intended to bring forth comments from readers, which may also appear in future installments. Please address me at P.O. Box 398, Demorest GA 30535-0398 or through
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