Family Traditions: Fact or Fiction?

The family historian and family storyteller are not always the same person.  Family traditions are not always family fact.  Traditions are not always historical and family stories are not always factual.  Does it matter?  Only if you’re claiming or implying yourself a historian, a reporter of historical facts.  Then it matters.

If we claim to be writing or telling history, never be surprised nor offended when our statements are challenged.  Most people will not care if we tell our tales as tales, but more than a few may object if we rewrite history.

The genealogical proof standards are exacting for a reason.

Consider this quote from a 1913 Roberts family genealogy book available from the Internet Archive website.[i]

“Three brothers by the name of Roberts came to America from Wales in the year 1700.  One brother settled in New York.  One went south.  The third brother, Robert Roberts, bought considerable land in Gloucester County, New Jersey, two miles from Swedesboro, on Oldmans Creek and Coons Creek.

His wife was from Holland.  He was an Episcopalian.  He lived to be over eighty years old.”[ii]

Now, consider another quote from one of my prized possessions, another self-published Roberts family genealogy.

“Three brothers, John, James, (George?) came to this country, United States, from Wales about the year 1600 and settled in Virginia.  Best I can gather one of the brothers went to the North and others stayed in the South.  The Roberts family is of Welch Baptist Stock, Primitive faith.  Great Great Grandfather John Roberts, moved from Virginia to Williamson County Tennessee when Great Grandfather John Rivers Roberts was three years old, 1803.  They later moved to Calloway County Kentucky near Murray.”[iii]

The document credits these words to William Penn Roberts, my second cousin once removed.  My cousin Deborah Outland assures me her aunt Verna played no small part in the research of this Calloway County, KY Roberts goldmine.  We’ve since confirmed the document I have is only part of a collaborative work between Penn and Verna which was over twice the size of the work I possessed.  Verna focused on the Owen family and Penn on the Roberts.

What do you observe in these two quotes?  Do they contain facts?  Yes.  Are these facts historically demonstrated or documented?  No.  Do these quotes contain family traditions?  Yes.  Does this mean they’re not historical events?  No.  Our family traditions may contain historical facts.  As family historians we take our family traditions and document the facts and distinguish for our readers between fact and fiction.

“Proof is a fundamental concept in genealogy. In order to merit confidence, each conclusion about an ancestor must have sufficient credibility to be accepted as “proved.” Acceptable conclusions, therefore, meet the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS). The GPS consists of five elements:

  • reasonably exhaustive research;
  • complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item;
  • tests—through processes of analysis and correlation—of all sources, information items, and evidence;
  • resolution of conflicts among evidence items;
  • anda soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.”[iv]

I’m related to John Rivers Roberts and his second wife Rebecca Ann Giles.  Penn Roberts was related to John Rivers Roberts and his first wife Sarah B. Smithson.  On a page with the heading “Facts of the Roberts Family” he repeats this tradition – or perhaps, begins it.

“The Smithsonian Institute of Washington D.C. was founded by one of our forebears according to best information we have.”

Well, we needed better information.

James Smithson portrait image from the Smithsonian Institute website. See it and others at https://www.si.edu/

James Smithson portrait image from the Smithsonian Institute website. See it and others at https://www.si.edu/

According to the Smithsonian Institute’s website[v] James Lewis Smithson (c. 1765-1829) was “the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, a wealthy widow who was a cousin of the Duchess of Northumberland.”  He used the name James Lewis Macie until his parents’ deaths and in 1801 had it changed to Smithson.  He never actually visited America.  He never married.  He never, to our knowledge, had children.  He could not be one of ours or anyone’s “forbears”.

When Penn Roberts wrote his family tradition (perhaps the 1950s) he did not have the internet and its research capabilities.  It’s truly amazing, a glut of information at the click of a mouse.  This may be a good time to remind ourselves.  Everything reported on the internet is not necessarily true or accurate.  “I saw it on the internet” doesn’t make it so.  Like the print media which preceded it, it may disseminate lies and misinformation or truth equally well.  And as we also know, just because something is written in a book doesn’t make it so.  Our information is only as good as the source of that information.   It must all be weighed, tested and documented to be confirmed.

This is where I add to our family tradition and show you a portrait of James Smithson from the Smithsonian website.[vi]   It’s reported to be a 1786 portrait done at Oxford upon his graduation by the English portrait artist James Roberts.  We must be related!  (I write with tongue firmly in cheek.)

James Smithson portrait image from the Smithsonian Institute website. See it and others at https://www.si.edu/

James Smithson portrait image from the Smithsonian Institute website. See it and others at https://www.si.edu/

Family traditions do not begin with a “reasonably exhaustive research”.  This is, however, the beginning of the genealogical proof standard.  We have much information at our fingertips today, but it’s common in genealogy or writing family history to do “reasonably exhaustive research” away from our computers.  We may need to exhaust ourselves in courthouses, libraries and research centers to begin the process of writing a “a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion”.

Here’s another family story shared by Penn Roberts.

“One of my father’s sisters, Amanda Jane, married Dr. Felix Winters, a Dentist.  She took up the practice of Dentistry and it is my understanding that she was the first woman Dentist in the whole Country.  Medical Journals had write-ups concerning her as a first woman Dentist.”

In his “Facts of the Roberts Family” Penn reports Amanda Jane Roberts’ birth date as March 22, 1861.  According to Elizabeth Neber King’s 1945 article entitled “Women in Dentistry”[vii] and printed in the Washington University Dental Journal, the first female to practice dentistry in America was born a Roberts.  Her name was Emeline Roberts Jones.  She assisted her husband prior to taking up the practice of dentistry in Connecticut in 1855, six years before Amanda Jane Roberts was born.  Ms. King also reports the first female to actually graduate (You have to be accepted before you can graduate.) from a dental school in America was Lucy Hobbs Taylor in 1866.

I celebrate the accomplishments of these women in dentistry, especially my relative Amanda Jane.  In spite of the difficulty of getting into universities and professions in the past, I suspect women have been finding ways to soothe men’s toothaches and other ailments long before the 1850s.

Family traditions become a problem for family historians when they’re stated as proven facts when in fact, they are not.  I never easily dismiss family traditions.  They often contain a germ of truth which must be explored and confirmed or disproven.  I never want to dismiss a family member’s claims without an examination.  I encourage this behavior for all family historians.  I thought several stories my Dad told me were “just stories”.  I’ve been able to confirm the factualness of some of them.  You may discover the same in your research.

Enjoy your family traditions.  Explore your family traditions.  Before your write them up as history, examine them.  Use the genealogical proof standard to separate your family’s facts from fiction.

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[i] https://ia902606.us.archive.org/14/items/genealogyofrober00cowa/genealogyofrober00cowa.pdf

[ii] This genealogy of the Roberts family appears to be a self-published work dated 1913 in Chicago.  “Genealogy of the Robert Roberts Family in America”, compiled by Maude Roberts Cowan and printed by Joseph Samuel Roberts.

[iii] This quote is taken from a copy of a document entitled “The Roberts Family History”.  The top of the third page includes these words, “Compiled by Wm. Penn Roberts”.  I received my copy from Rudy Roberts Holland in 2013 while visiting him in Murray, KY.  He is my 3rd cousin once removed.  I suspect he received his copy from Nancy Roberts Thurman whom he referred to as the “expert” on our Roberts family.  There are copious corrections in this work and I suspect they were done by Nancy or perhaps Penn’s wife Virginia “Verna” Roberts.

[iv] http://www.bcgcertification.org/resources/standard.html

[v] https://www.si.edu/About/History

[vi] http://siarchives.si.edu/history/james-smithson

[vii] http://beckerexhibits.wustl.edu/mowihsp/health/womenindentistry.htm

For a Limited Time: A Free Seminar to Get Unstuck in Your Research

I’ve got some good news for you but you’ll need to respond in the next few days to get it FREE.

Are you stuck in your family research?  Do you want some guidance on good practices for researching your family?  Do you understand genealogical proof standards?

lft-bcg-gps-webinar-1-300x221Legacy Family Tree Seminars brings us Shellee Morehead.  It’s an excellent online seminar and for a few days, it’s free.  Click here and then click “Watch” to view the video.  View it before the August 23, 2016.

Enjoy!

Did you see this great tip from Amy Johnson Crow?

Aside

Backtracking the Common’s goal is to encourage and assist you in backtracking and telling your family’s story.  Losing your ancestor’s trail or constantly getting sidetracked by the “shiny objects” of genealogy can be discouraging.  How do we avoid being overwhelmed by this discouragement?

Professional Genealogist Amy Johnson Crow addresses this question in her August 2 post.  I can highly recommend you read it and be encouraged as well as instructed.  Thanks Amy!

Click on Amy’s title below and enjoy a good read.

How to Avoid Genealogy Overwhelm 

Share Your Family’s Exciting Past. Here’s the Why and How.

“One of the most pitiful sights in the world is that of a grown man who has lost all recollection of his past…A school, a state, a nation or a society that has forgotten its own past, that knows no more the great sources of its own vigor, stands in desperate peril.”[i]

Your family story matters.  The ability to pass it on is the power to reorient and anchor a life and the collective life of a family.  It gives light, purpose and understanding.  It explains and empowers.

Chase, Chandler and Clayton Collins at their 4 x great-parents Pleasant Wesley & Rachel Marinda Byrd’s grave in Chico, Texas in 2012.

The ancients in oral cultures used the term “remember”.  They set up sign posts, memorials which pointed to and explained the past.  Fathers and mothers were instructed to recount and remind their children of their past, not simply their lives but the lives of those who went before them.  The goal was to establish “connection” in each generation to their God and their progenitors, to know their vision and values, to understand and restate their goals as a people.

Aubrey and Camy Roberts at their 3x great-grandfather John Anderson Roberts grave in Little Vine Cemetery near Sumner, TX in Lamar County

Aubrey and Camy Roberts at the grave of their 3 x great-grandfather John Anderson Roberts in Lamar County, Texas in 2016

 

My appeal as an old man is NOT for a return to “old-fashioned” ways and practices.  I’m much more interested in function than I am formI urge you to consider this appeal.  We need not convince our children and grandchildren to turn-back-the-clock and give up their mobile devices, dress in a previous fashion, worship in particular ways or spaces, give up their vehicles for horses, enjoy the piano only music of the 19th century beer halls and churches or the organ music of the 20th century vaudeville theaters, etc.  God-seeking parents can demonstrate and encourage their children and grandchildren to seek God.  Freedom loving Americans can demonstrate and encourage their children and grandchildren to love freedom.  These driving values of early Americans may constantly be renewed and understood.

When our families know their past, they’re better able to walk into their future.  When they understand God-given rights, they understand their freedom to choose how they respond to their family’s unique history and their nation’s call.

 ge·ne·al·o·gy

a line of descent traced continuously from an ancestor.

  • the study and tracing of lines of descent or development.
  • a plant’s or animal’s line of development from earlier forms.

My genealogy journey is just over four years in duration.  The serious research of my family’s history began in 2012.  I do not consider myself a genealogist.  I’m a family historian using the proof standards of the genealogist to discover and recover my family’s past.  My goal is not simply uncovering lines of descent but uncovering lives and telling their storiesI expect their impact to inform, entertain, encourage and inspire.  If I do it well.

Our third son Chris recently asked me, “Dad, what is it about you and all of this family history stuff?”  Fair question.  The kind of question I would expect from this child.  He grew up and began his own family before he ever heard his father speak of genealogy.  Now…well…you understand.  Most of you have seen the glassy stare or family members or watched them roll their eyes as you shared simple or fascinating facts about their ancestorYou’ve seen them express more interest in discussing today’s reality “stars” or some fictional characters in a book than real people from their rich past with whom they share DNA.

What is it about me and all of this family history stuff?

  • I’ve always been naturally curious, enjoyed a good mystery, and loved history.
  • I’ve lived a very busy life. I’ve had considerable demands on my time and like everyone else, I needed to prioritize.  I’ve lived long enough now to see the end.  I have little time left to recover and record my family’s past.  I need to prioritize.
  • I’ve lived most of my life with little knowledge of my family and our history, our story. I felt no connection.  I knew nothing of the “source of our vigor”.  Our story is in peril.

Hundreds of genealogists and thousands upon thousands of family historians know exactly what I mean.  You understand the pull of “all this family history stuff”.  What shall we do?  What do we do with the facts we’ve recovered?  How do we connect them to the present?

How do we tell our family’s story?

Caleb Roberts family at Jeremiah Horn grave in Collin County June 19, 2016 (2)

The Caleb Roberts family at the grave of his 4 x great-grandfather Jeremiah Horn in Collin County, Texas 2016

If our goal is to present a true and accurate family picture, good research must always precede good writing.  If we’re going to present fables as facts, we need not “waste our time” doing the hard research.  Simply write the fables. If you choose however to do the hard research and wish to accurately portray these facts, think about the kind of writing which holds your attention.  Read it.  Practice writing it.  Take your known facts and write in that fashion.

Four suggestions for writing your family stories:

  1. Have something to share. Do the work.  Do the necessary research.  Know the family facts and the history surrounding those facts.
  2. Connect your family’s stories to their times. Intermingle well-known historical facts and people with the stories of your family.  Provide the context.  Connect your family dots by telling a story.
  3. Grab their attention. Use a quote, question, statement or mystery.  Dare them not to keep reading.  Of course, some may not!
  4. If you want to be interesting, serve your readers and listeners. Always keep them and their interests in mind as you write or form the stories you’ll tell.

Some practical ways to involve our families in their history.

Family FeudFamily Feud.  Our immediate family consists of seven grown children and their families.  (Yes, same mother, same father) At our Christmas gathering we play a game I’ve shamelessly stolen and named “Family Feud”.  The teams consist of the seven family units.  They’re playing for the order in which a set of gift cards will be selected from off of the tree, 1 – 7.  I prepare a power point series of slides with questions about our family’s history.  Photos or historical documents are often used.  Points accumulate for each correct answer and are tallied up when all the slides are revealed.  The top scoring family selects first and so on down the list.

Crew at BL's gravesite

Ashton and Mia Armstrong at the grave of their great-grandfather B.L. Roberts in Denton County, Texas in 2013. Mia is my biggest blog reader and wonders why I don’t write more about my grandchildren.

Begin an online Blog.  Don’t cringe.   We live in a written and visual culture.  Free blogs are available and easily accessible.[ii]  Blogs allow you free space online to share your thoughts and make them available to groups of people or to a broader public.  It’s an inexpensive way to make any or all of your research accessible to your family.  My grown children spend very little time on my blog.  (There is an uptick near Christmas.)  My grandchildren are beginning to access the blog some – and some more than others.  The reality– our families may never care about our family stories the way we do.  But a free blog means that when we’re dead and gone, the research will be easily available online if they decide to access it.

Tell Stories.  As you discover new facts about your family, think about an interesting way to introduce these facts in an exciting story-form.  Look for opportunities to share these little vignettes with your family members.

Take Trips.  Plan “family history tours” with you children or grandchildren.  They may be half day, one day or multiple day trips.  Visit places of family significance, cemeteries where you have family buried, history museums, libraries, research centers, etc.  Do grave marker etchings.  Be prepared and always tell stories as you go.

Mom interview 5 006

Ashley, Camy and Aubrey interview their great-grandmother Bertha Mae Byrd Roberts in 2016

Interview older family members.  Involve your children or grandchildren in the process.  Set an example with your questions.  Then, allow them to ask questions.  Capture the event in photos and on video.  Make these videos available on free resources such as YouTube.  If you need help with the technical side of things, ask your children or grandchildren to help you do it!

Invite your family members to write a guest blog on you site.

Publish sections of family timelines and pass them out at gatherings.

Have family members re-enact episodes of your family’s story.

These are a few of the ways to bring our families into the process.  Use the comment section and share some of your ideas to involve our families.

My grandfather Gus Roberts grew up in the Masonic Home for Children in Fort Worth, Texas.  His lack of knowing or an unwillingness to tell his family’s story almost ended the knowledge of our past.  Backtracking this family has opened up the rich and diverse history of our multiple family lines.  The nuggets continue to be mined from our family’s story and their value is incalculable.

I wish for you this same joy.  I encourage you to follow this blog.  Sign up to the receive free updates.  Never stop learning.  Be inspired!

Happy backtracking!

Gary Roberts 

[i] From a plaque which once hung in the Museum of the Masonic Home for Children in Fort Worth, Texas.  Author is unknown to me.  Sara Bell called my attention to the pictures online.  http://masonichome-exstudents.org/

[ii] https://wordpress.com/  https://googleblog.blogspot.com/  https://www.blogger.com/

A Genealogy Gold Mine in North Texas

What kind of grandfather drags his grandchildren to multiple cemeteries and calls it fun?  What kind of family historian allows the fear of a little traffic congestion keep him from a genealogical gold mine?  What kind of person never stops interviewing his aged mother and gets rewarded with a story he’s never heard?  That would be me, guilty on all counts and hoping you benefit from my experiences.

Let’s answer that second question. Continue reading

Summer Fun and Tips for Your Genealogy

What kind of grandfather drags his grandchildren to multiple cemeteries and calls it fun?  What kind of family historian allows the fear of a little traffic congestion keep him from a genealogical gold mine?  What kind of person never stops interviewing his aged mother and gets rewarded with a story he has never heard?  That would be me, guilty on all counts and hoping you benefit from my experiences. Continue reading

Gus Roberts: Aftermath

I wish to write of grace – a common grace which is shown to all and a specific grace expressed in the limb of one family.

Gus Roberts (2)Gus Roberts was the last chance to carry on his father’s line.  What chance did he have?  His father died violently in his bed when Gus was only three.  The story says he was in the room when the deed was done.  His mother was convicted of complicity in his murder and went to prison.  Gus went to an orphan’s home.  What chance did he have?  What would happen to Gus? Continue reading

One of My Favorite Documents In All the World

How can one of my favorite documents be a tax document? Please allow me to demonstrate why family researchers should pay close attention to tax documents. Surely you’ve heard… Continue reading

Remembering…

American eagle and flag image

We pause today to remember those men and women who paid the final price that we may continue to enjoy the richness of our liberty.  We remember those as well, who though they did not die in service, put themselves in harm’s way with a willingness to be made an offering to the future of our nation.  We remember them.  We honor them. Continue reading

My Grandfather Gus

The death of my great-grandfather John Anderson Roberts in 1901 would deprive my grandfather Gus of ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­the guidance of a father, the nurture of a mother and the knowledge of a heritage.  The seeds of disaster were in the ground.  Our family needed a crop failure!

Gus Roberts as a child in about 1905 or 1906The sudden and violent death of three-year-old Gus Roberts’ father would prevent him from working beside his father in the field, riding with him in the wagon, hunting with him in the woods and sitting with him at the table.  He would miss the stories of his father’s youth in Williamson County, Tennessee and his family’s migration to Calloway County, Kentucky.  He would never know of the Roberts of Virginia or be able to claim their heritage his heritage.  The later decision of a jury to convict his mother of murder for her part in his father’s death would deprive Gus of the comfort and encouragement of a mother, the steady hand of someone who believes in you.  What would happen to this little boy “orphaned” by the death of his father and the conviction of his mother? Continue reading