How to Critically Read a Family History

Take the next step in genealogy and critically read your family histories

So you think your family history has all been done and you have a family history book on your shelf to prove it. When was the last time you read that family history book? Was it easy to follow and did you understand everything within?

My grandmother is an adopted daughter of parents whose ancestral line extends back to Colonial America and could connect me with cousins who were first ladies. Except for that whole adoption thing, I could be a member of DAR. Yet, that doesn’t really matter. Regardless, my grannie loved her Marvin family line which anyone with ties to Hartford, Connecticut in the 1630s, just might be related her multiple-great grandparents and uncle, Reinhold and Matthew Marvin, who were two brothers originally from Great Bentley, Essex County, England.

As such, their research has been traced solidly into the 1600s. So, their work would all be done, right?

There is a book available on Google Play (or library shelves) detailing the early descendants of the brothers. But, have you read the book? Um. It’s about as enjoyable to read as a fact-filled textbook. Sure the facts are cool, but reading a textbook is not something you curl up with for storytime.

Incidentally, I often read these old family histories and have so many questions. That’s where you can spend time working on family history if seeking out new family names or tromping through archives and cemeteries is not up your alley.

Many Published Family Histories Generate Multiple Unanswered Questions

Critically read a family history for anything that does not make sense. Some histories have details that need further explanation.

  • Where was the roller rink where you met my father?
  • What was a bobsled in Ontario, Canada?
  • How do you pronounce that name?
  • Why is he on a track team in Texas when all other events of his life were from New Mexico?
  • Who is De Veres?
  • What is a ‘snuff box’ and why was it named in a will?

Often locations, people, and objects are mentioned in family histories without further explanations and the reader is left wondering, “huh?”

That’s where you come in. Critically re-read those old family histories and make notes (or mark up copies that can be replaced) when you come across such situations.

Critically Reading a Published Family History

Let me show you what I mean with two pages from the Matthew and Reinhold Marvin books. (Descendants of Reinold and Matthew Marvin of Hartford, Ct., 1638 and 1635: Sons of Edward Marvin, of Great Bentley, England, by George Franklin Marvin William Theophilus Rogers Marvin, 1901.)

Descendants of Reinold and Matthew Marvin of Hartford, Ct.
From the book Descendants of Reinold and Matthew Marvin of Hartford, Ct.

In examining this sample, here are a few things that I would like clarified quickly.

  • How old were Edward and Margaret Marvin when Reinold was born?
    • How long had they been married?
    • Did either have previous relationships?
    • What is Reinold’s birth order?
  • Where is Great Bently, England?
    • What is the geography like?
  • What religion was St Mary’s church affiliated with?
  • What historical events were taking place in 1594?
    • Was it a peaceful time in England?
    • Who was on the throne?
  • Where is Lyme, Connecticut?
    • How many people lived in Lime?
    • Who were the rulers?
    • Why was Lyme important?
  • How old was Reinold when he died? 
    • (Yeah, I know. I could do the math but I appreciate writers who do it for me so I can focus on more important details). 
  • Where did he marry Marie ___?
    • I’m supposing there is little to go off record-wise, but did they marry in England or Connecticut? Having a continental shift before mentioning marriage, it’s unclear.
  • What? Reinhold’s wife was suspected of witchcraft?
    • This certainly deserves more investigation!
    • Lyme isn’t Salem. Do you mean the Salem Witch Trials were more widespread?

Another Example of Critically Reading a Published Family History

Another page from Descendants of Reinold and Matthew Marvin of Hartford, Ct.
  • How much land did Reinhold inherit?
    • Was it good land?
    • Was the land entailed?
    • Were there tenant farmers associated with the land?
    • How far apart is Moysses or Mose from Great Bently?
  • John Turner and Reinold were overseers in 1625.
    • Why is this recorded in St. Mary’s Register?
    • What is an overseer?
    • Who is John Turner?
  • More church positions listed?
    • What was a church warden?
    • Who are these additional men mentioned?
  • Servant burials
    • How many servants would Reinold have had?
    • What jobs would they have done?
  • 1636 Tax
    • What is Tendringe Hundred?
    • How much is two shillings and sixpence worth?
    • How many shares did Reinold have in the “Essex Ship Money”?
      • Who were the other investors?
      • What percentage of the shares did Reinold have?
    • Why was the tax unpopular? Only American colonists disliked royal taxes, right?

What questions do family histories about your ancestors generate?

Notice how many details are not explained in these two brief pages? I can go on, and on, and on.

The purpose of this activity is not to necessarily answer all the questions right now. The purpose of re-reading your collection of published families is to point out what needs further explanation. You can accomplish this critical read in 15-minute sessions over a period of days or weeks.

Take the next step in genealogy and critically read your family histories. Develop research questions and learn to write a better book people want to read. #genealogy #methodology #ancestors
Are you reading published genealogies with a critical eye? #genealogy #researchtips #familyhistory
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If the original author is still alive, you can send them your, ‘Please explain further’ list of questions to help them improve their writings. If the original author is deceased, you can seek out answers in the future or turn the questions over to other family researchers. The beauty of critically reading previous works is that these earlier editions of our family histories can become better. Like a peer-reviewed paper in academia.

The point is, don’t think you’re too busy to do genealogy. Find something you can do that fits into your schedule and into your interests. Your contribution is priceless.

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

4 thoughts on “How to Critically Read a Family History

  1. Excellent post. I like how you SHOWED what you meant. Everybody says to make the story come to life, but your instructions are the most helpful and specific that I have ever read.

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