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!

Genealogy Tip #9: Writing Family Stories and the Genealogical Proof Standards

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”?[i]

Writing Our Family StoriesMany family storytellers aren’t interested in genealogical proof standards.  They’re simply telling stories to entertain.  That’s their goal.  I applaud the storyteller.  I love a good story.  But, the family historian can’t afford to adopt this attitude.  Their goal must first be accuracy and then entertainment.  Otherwise, it’s not history and they’re not a family historian.  So, let’s be clear, this post is not about family stories vs. genealogical proof standards.  It’s about family stories and genealogical proof standards.  It’s about how we take well researched family facts and use them to tell accurately entertaining stories – and if we can’t, we should make it clear we’re only repeating a family tale.

I visited a “family history” website this past week that illustrates the clash.  The writer warned me in the first few lines not to trust all of the things written about their family on the internet (Sites and trees other than theirs is what they had in mind.).  One page later they inform us their ancestors welcomed Davy Crockett into their home in Tennessee as he made his way to the Alamo.  They further claim their ancestors were neighbors to another Republic of Texas history legend, Edward Burleson.[ii]  This is done without any reference to one scintilla of evidence supporting such claims.  Is this a problem? Yes? No? Maybe?  Tell the story.  It’s not a “crime”.  It’s not the problem.  To repeat it as historical fact or as if it were historically accurate IS a problem.

Family stories are told in many forms all over the world.  This isn’t a problem.  If you’re telling family stories, you’re not in trouble – even if they’re speculative and knowingly or unknowingly inaccurate.  However, if you tell these unsubstantiated stories as if they’re historical facts and you expect other family trees to reflect your “notion of the truth”, this is a problem.  And if you’re reading and repeating these stories as “gospel truth”, you’re participating in and propagating a problem.

Family stories and genealogical proof standards are not incongruous.  You need not decide one or the other.  You can choose both.  Here are some suggestions.

First, Understand the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Genealogical Standards book cover“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; and
  • a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.

Each element contributes to a conclusion’s credibility in a different way, described in the table below, but all the elements are necessary to establish proof.

Element of the GPS Contribution to Credibility
Reasonably exhaustive research
  • Assumes examination of a wide range of high quality sources
  • Minimizes the probability that undiscovered evidence will overturn a too-hasty conclusion
Complete, accurate citations to the source or sources of each information item
  • Demonstrates the extent of the search and the quality of the sources
  • Allows others to replicate the steps taken to reach the conclusion. (Inability to replicate the research casts doubt on the conclusion.)
Tests—through processes of analysis and correlation—of all sources, information items, and evidence
  • Facilitates sound interpretation of the data contributed by each source
  • Ensures that the conclusion reflects all the evidence
Resolution of conflicts among evidence items
  • Substantiates the conclusion’s credibility. (If conflicting evidence is not resolved, a credible conclusion is not possible.)
Soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion.
  • Eliminates the possibility that the conclusion is based on bias, preconception, or inadequate appreciation of the evidence
  • Explains how the evidence led to the conclusion “

(The previous quote is taken from the Board for Certification of Genealogist blog[iii])

This should be the standard for our family history research.

Need more information?  Consider these excellent resources:

Next, Understand the Purpose(s) of Our Stories

Why do we tell our family stories?

  1. Inform and Encourage. Knowing our family’s history helps us find “our place”.  We gain a sense of belonging and find value in our family members’ accomplishments and place in history.
  2. Inspire. We tell our family stories to inspire family members and others to greatness.  “Common people” accomplishing uncommon things inspires us to rise to a greater finish.
  3. Warn. We share our family’s stories as a warning to ourselves and others.  We all have “black sheep” in our families.  (They’re some of my favorites.)  Telling their stories in our “tales” warns us about our present path or our possible future.  Someone will tell our story one day.  Will it inspire or warn off a future generation?
  4. Entertain. Our stories may inform, encourage, inspire or even warn.  They should also entertain.  Think about it.  If our goal is to inform and inspire, aren’t we more likely to accomplish this if we’re also entertaining?

What makes our stories entertaining? 

I would be the last person to tell you how to write.  I’m woefully inadequate.  I do, however, have a fair ability to recognize a good story and a good storyteller.  They can articulate or at least know intuitively their story needs three parts.  (Don’t think beginning, middle and end.)  Think instead of your favorite stories/movies.  What do they have in common?  Every good story has three ingredients:

  • Origination. The listener/reader needs to be drawn in and at the same time oriented to the main character and crisis in the story.  It grabs, excites, introduces, informs and compels the reader/listener forward into the story.  The first part of a good origination could be a sentence, paragraphs or chapters in length.  For example, “James Williams was short in stature but he was guaranteed another inch or two from the hangman’s noose.”  Conflict (inner or outer) in one form or another is always introduced in this first part.  To have a story, something has to go wrong.
  • The conflict escalates. Things may get better, but they eventually get worse.  There may be a series of improvements but if there is, things continue to get worse after each one.  It’s a roller-coaster of emotions as you learn more and care more about the main character and feel stronger angst toward his combatants.  Impending doom is approaching.  “…James’ attorney had located his third potential witness to alibi his client and save him from the gallows, but like the previous two, he too disappeared.”  The tension builds.
  • Resolution.  The story is brought to a conclusion when the initial conflict is brought to a resolution.  In the fictional stories I used to tell my children, the hero always won.  But, that’s not always possible when telling historically accurate stories.  Sometimes James Williams is hung.

There is a wealth of information on “what makes a good story”.  Google it.  Read a book about it.  Take a course.  Practice. Practice.  Practice.  But never stop learning or trying to make your stories entertaining.  Our improving ability to tell our stories will increase the likelihood our family histories will be known, cherished and repeated.

Use the comment section to share any “what makes a good story” material you know of to help family history writers.

Now, Combine the two disciplines.

Here’s how we transform our family research into entertaining, historical, uncompromised family stories.

  1. Use the Genealogical Proof Standards as a guideline in your family research. Have a story to tell based on historical facts demonstrated by historical, genealogical evidence.  Catalog and save your documentation.  Use endnotes to share your sources.
  2. Write or tell your story based on the facts you’ve uncovered and documented. Write your story using the guidelines on what makes a good story.  It will take time and practice but you can do it.  Make it a good story.  Make it a true story.  Use accurate, documented facts.
  3. If you feel you must tell your relative’s tall tale (or short tale) about your ancestor, or you just want to tell it, clearly identify it as a historically unsubstantiated tale.

Writing our family’s history is fun and entertaining.  To be history, it needs to be accurate.  We’re not creating fictional families.  We’re family historians.  We’re uncovering history.  We tell the rich story of our ancestors.  Knowing their true stories adds richness to our lives.  Telling their stories well adds richness to the lives of others.

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Thanks for sharing these posts with others.

Now, let’s go write those entertaining stories!

[i] According to Barry Popik this phrase or a form of it is often credited to Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie but it appeared in print as early as 1882 or six years before Dobie was born.

[ii] The website mentioned in this example is real but being withheld in order to…well, protect my possible cousin!

[iii] Board for Certification of Genealogist.

[iv] Available at Amazon.

[v] Available at Amazon.

[vi] Available at Amazon.

A Genealogical Thanksgiving

I’m thinking of a Genealogical Thanksgiving and wondering why I’m only now, today, thinking of it.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

James 1:17 NIV Bible

 

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—

1 Timothy 2:1 NIV Bible

 

…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 NIV Bible

Sarah Hale wrote to five presidents seeking to have a day of Thanksgiving recognized by all citizens of all states of the United States on the same day.  Here is part of her letter.

“You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”[i]

Abraham Lincoln received her letter in the middle of a war threatening to tear the union apart.  He established our tradition of a national holiday for giving thanks in 1863.  (The Confederate States waited until 1870 to join the fun!)  We’ve been, since then, celebrating the fourth Thursday of November as this singular national day of giving thanks in America.

I wonder why we feel the need to choose one day or why we feel we have to “order” proper behavior.  But, that’s another discussion for another day.

The fact is, it is more consistent with the teachings of the Bible and healthier to be thankful every day.  And genealogists and family historians have much to be thankful for every day.  Here are a few reminders, some things for which I am thankful as a family historian.

  1. A rich and varied family history with which I never bore. I’m about to begin my 4th year of research in my family history.  (I know; it seems like forever for some of my poor living family members.)  I’ve discovered the men and women in both of our family lines were all here before the Revolution.  All of my ancestral lines where in America 100 years before Lincoln “ordered” thankfulness — and some earlier.   Their stories illustrate the very fiber of this nation and are revealed one fact at a time.  Simple, common things fire my imagination.  I found my great-great-grandfather Riggs in the 1860 Federal Census from Denton County, Texas.  His occupation is “Master Cabinet Maker”.  His immediate neighbor’s occupation is given as “Cabinet Maker” and no doubt was my relative’s apprentice.  Stephen Riggs’ name appears in a recent book on early influential Texas furniture makers.  I know it’s crazy but uncovering these simple details still excites me and for such a rich family history, I am thankful.
  2. Family research facilities. There are sections of libraries and a growing number of stand-alone facilities for researching family history.  These include national, state and local centers.  Billions of clues and facts about families can’t be found online.  They are more available and accessible now than ever.  I am thankful.
  3. Friendly staff in county courthouses. If you’re going to research your family, you’ll need to be in county courthouses.  I always appreciate it when I meet courteous and helpful clerks.  I’ve met a bunch of them over the past three years, but the best example so for are the ladies in the county clerks’ office in Lamar County, Texas.  When I meet people like these folks, I am thankful.
  4. The Internet. You can’t do all of your research online but you can do more now than ever.  And you can do it in your pajamas!  (Only if you’re at home.  Don’t do it when you’re using the computers in a library or research facility.)  Family Search, Ancestry and a growing number of business minded companies are offering services to family researchers that can be accessed from home.  Add to this the Internet Archives and the millions of pages of others’ research now available online and you see why I’m thankful.
  5. Genealogical Proof Standards. The practice of these standards by family researchers is what keeps the sanity in the genealogical universe.  It also helps me know I’m on the right “trail” as I backtrack the common.  I am thankful.
  6. Helpful fellow researchers. They’re everywhere in the genealogical community.  Their clues are invaluable and their information is sometimes right!  I am thankful.
  7. DNA testing is available and cheap. The use of DNA for genealogical purposes is exploding.  The testing is simple.  The results and the software to help you understand and keep track of your results are improving.  You can now find cousins without doing the hard work of building an accurate family tree.  I don’t recommend it.  You’ll get much more out of your DNA results if you’ll build a five generation deep pedigree chart and then have your DNA tested.  I am thankful.
  8. I am thankful for all of the new cousins I’ve found through research and DNA. If you’re one of them, I want you to know I’m thankful!
  9. I’m thankful for my wife Dee who supports and assists me in my research.  We’ve been traveling together now for over 40 years and I am thankful.

Have a great Thanksgiving everybody!

[i] Sarah Hale’s original letter to President Lincoln is in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.