Reorienting the Course of Family History

Why would you need another book about family history? Why would you even buy your first one? I hope to share a few of the opening chapters of my new book to encourage you that 21st Century Family Historian is different from other genealogy and family history books that you’ll find on the shelves at your local library. You should feel more energized about the work you have done, or you’ll be inspired to contribute your unique talents to your family’s preservation efforts.

21st Century Family Historian by Devon Lee
21st Century Family Historian
available September 1st.

Here’s a sneak peak at the first section entitled “Reorienting the Course of Family History.”

Often, when people think of genealogy, it doesn’t elicit much passion. Genealogy is something old people do. Genealogy is laborious or tortuous. Genealogy is for that weird family member who is really into it, but not for me.

In speaking to many ‘old timers’ about genealogy they tell me that ‘new’ genealogy is different. Let’s examine that for a minute. In the long distant past, genealogy was focused heavily on establishing lineage. You can look to the Bible, to Egyptian obelisks, and to Chinese Dynasties to understand that lineage was important. In many cases it determined the ruler of empires. For the most part, genealogy was similar to completing pedigree charts and group sheets to detail who begat whom.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, many of the barbarian tribes in Europe sought to bring legitimacy to their nobility. In the ensuing decades and centuries, the Christian European royalty ‘traced’ their own lineage back to show they were related to the royal Jewish line, to the lineage of David. There weren’t always records to prove any of these, and examining many of them will show numerous mythical figures (for instance, the Norse gods Thor and Odin) that couldn’t possibly be ancestors.

Genealogies were kept for nobility, but as kingdoms and empires rose and fell, the nobility became the peasants and their lineage was lost, forgotten or hidden. By the 16th century, the Catholic Church was keeping many standardized records throughout Europe such as baptisms, weddings, and burials. In many places, the church and the government were intermingled and these records became the forerunners of modern civil records.

As migrations across Europe and to the new world occurred, many people held on to their recorded heritage. Other families lost their lineage records as they migrated. Often, individuals seeking to re-establish their heritage would hire professionals and if they were lucky, the professional would compile an accurate lineage. In the past, several of these compilations were fabricated out of whole cloth. Far too often, these heritage books would link a person to Charlemagne or other historical hero when there was no such documented evidence.

As more and more lineage works were discovered to be fraudulent, genealogical proof became important. Thus, when genealogy was taught, the need to find documents verifying facts was stressed. If you wanted to record a life event, you needed to have a birth certificate, death certificate, family Bible, or other record to back up the information. Although the need to prove facts is important, far too often those people who wished to record an event who did not have a record to verify it (perhaps only someone’s memory) felt that they could not write it down and the information was lost.
Another distressing loss of information occurred as governments were overthrown and new people in power sought to cleanse their lands of the undesirables, especially those with noble ancestry. Places like China that previously had excellent genealogical records going back hundreds and even thousands of years saw families destroying their records in order to save their lives. Genealogical proof will probably never be available for most of their ancestors.

Even with a push for documentation, the quality of research still remained fair at best. Most people working on genealogy were amateurs, and amateurs do not always follow a common standard. Today, one could debate whether genealogy standards would rise if only professionals did the work. But, as the number of professional genealogists will never grow to more than a tiny fraction of the population, the way to increase the quality of genealogical work is not to leave it to experts.

If someone is very lucky, they will have some records that another person interested in their family lines compiled. This could simply be a family tree drawn on a sheet of lined paper. It could be a collection of pedigree charts and group sheets. Or it could be a scrapbook filled with not only these charts, but with copies of the documents to support the facts on the charts.

Yet something has been missing with inviting people to do their family history. If two books are on a shelf, and one is a 900 page story about a family who lived during the French Revolution and the other is a 100 page collection of pedigree charts, birth certificates, and a smattering of journal pages… which one would a person be more likely to pick up and read?  The 900 page novel, even if the quality of the novelist’s writing is poor. The reason stems from the fact that charts and records are exciting to only a few people. A story that might have been developed from those charts and records, but not necessarily, is far more interesting. People can envision a setting, emotions, and challenges in a narrative form rather than an outline. If outlines or basic facts were more appealing, then we’d have no need for stories by J. R. R. Tolkien, J. K. Rowling, or Jane Austen.

Despite the knowledge that most people love stories more than charts, genealogy has been slow to adopt the practice of recording the stories as well as the facts. A few learned and passionate people of the past kept wonderful, detailed journals. But if you had a poor ancestor, they probably didn’t keep a journal, even though they had important stories to share. Few people took the time to write these stories down.

Imagine the value in the details behind the death of a toddler on a German immigrant’s farm. The toddler fell into a recently dug well and drowned. If someone would have written down things like: when did it happen, why did no one see the youngster wander off, who found him, how did the parents react, what was their reaction to the sermon given at the child’s funeral that criticized the parents heavily as an ‘example’ to others, then the story could have more depth and accuracy rather than our poor speculation. In this case, the parents were poor and unable to write their side of events. A literate church leader recorded the blasting remarks from the funeral. Someone learned  probably heard the story of the child’s death and had the ability to write, but did not take the time to record it. Future generations are left with only a name, birth and death dates, and a location for the event for a pedigree chart. The sermon, when discovered, will paint the family in a negative light. Ultimately, nothing else will be remembered about this poor toddler farm boy and his bereaved parents with the ‘traditional’ approach to genealogy.

Thankfully, a new wave of interest in family research is growing, and it’s changing our perspective of what is important. There is a move away from the genealogical focus on names, dates, and places, to the stories that support those details. Emphasis is placed on preserving memories, photos, and the stuff of people’s lives. Then use all of this information, coupled with local and national history, to better understand those names on the charts. The movement is tilting toward preserving memories rather than only completing charts.

To read more, purchase your copy of 21st Century Family Historian at, currently in eBook format with a print version to soon be released. Copies go on sale September 1st.

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