Have you ever trailed an animal? Have you tried to find and follow an animal without the ground being covered with snow? When I was much younger, my older friend Larry Drewery put on a clinic. We and his brother Terry “struck” the trail of a wounded animal around 9:30 pm. In the darkness, with only a flashlight, Larry trailed him for over two hours through the briars and brambles of a dark creek bottom. His success that night is still the finest display of trailing I’ve ever personally observed.
Is Larry’s success an example of backtracking? No. Think of backtracking as striking the trail of the same wounded animal and working backward to find where he was wounded and then all the way back to where he woke up that morning! That’s backtracking and it, like your family history, can be very challenging.
I call my blog “Backtracking the Common”. I’m discovering most of the family in my past were common, salt-of-the-earth kind of people. They’re not just my kind of people — they’re my people.
Backtracking the common is much more difficult than backtracking the famous.
I grew up with absolutely no knowledge of my great-grandfather Roberts. I “cut his trail” (came across evidence of where he had been) in 2012 and backtracked him from Lamar County, Texas to Calloway County, Kentucky. I learned the name of his father. Like his, it was John. From there I backtracked them to Williamson County, Tennessee and learned my great-great-grandfather shared the same name with his father—yep, John again. I had to learn how to distinguish the “track” of my great-great-grandfather John R. Roberts from his cousin John D. Roberts who also lived in Williamson in the early 1800s. From Williamson County I backtracked my 3 x great-grandfather John Roberts (That’s right, same first and last name with an unknown middle name or initial) to Lunenburg County, Virginia. I’m presently comparing the “tracks, broken twigs, and overturned rocks” of THREE John Roberts in the area, near the same age, in the middle-to-late 1700s! Difficult and tedious are two words that come to mind. This may take some time.
Backtracking John Roberts sometimes feels like backtracking a John Smith.
Here are a few suggestions for backtracking your common kin folks.
Stay focused. Avoid of the “shiny objects”. Stay focused on the next “track”.
Set attainable and reachable goals. Make your plans to accomplish your goals and stick to the plan.
Understand you may need to learn about the lives of your kin’s family, associates and neighbors to follow the trail of your ancestor. I now know most of the family names in southern Williamson County, TN and northeastern Lunenburg County, VA.
Let others help you. Taking the time to read this post is an example of seeking help in your research process. There’s an abundance of excellent free help on today’s internet when it comes to researching family history. When you need it, take advantage of it.
Refuse to allow difficulty to overcome your desire to learn and tell your family’s story.
Take a break when you need it. Switch family lines or stop all together. Recharge your emotional and mental batteries and then pick up the trail!
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What is your all-time favorite tip for “backtracking” your family’s history?
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.
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.)
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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[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.
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!
“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.
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.
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 amform. I urge you to considerthis 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.
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 stories. I 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 ancestor. You’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?
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:
Have something to share. Do the work. Do the necessary research. Know the family facts and the history surrounding those facts.
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.
Grab their attention. Use a quote, question, statement or mystery. Dare them not to keep reading. Of course, some may not!
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 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.
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.
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!
[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/
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.
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 “Summer Fun and Tips for Your Genealogy”
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 “Remembering…”