If anyone knows more about Burton Lee Roberts than me, it would be my mother – and I’ve told her things over the past five years she didn’t know about him. He was my father for thirty-three years before his death in 1988. While free with his opinions, he held his secrets close. I peppered him with questions all my life about his family, growing up, military service and the medical profession. He and I cleared land together, did electrical trim work over one summer and fished on a few occasions. I got to know him better (understand) through my psychology and pastoral counseling studies. He and I spoke of spiritual things on only a couple of occasions. We later had our goodbye conversation when it became clear he would not live much longer. I believed we were ready. I was wrong.
My 2012 budding interest in genealogy, and Dad’s family in particular, brought multiple new facts and affirmations about his life to light. And with those discoveries many more new questions I wish I could ask. I peppered Mom and one surviving aunt with some of those questions. I so wish I had become interested in genealogy earlier. My dad’s sister would have been a gold mine of information. She died in 2010. Missed opportunity.
Now what? I still know a great deal about him and continue to pursue missing information and historical tidbits. I will tell his story – and stories. As I’ve explained, I’m in the best position of perhaps anyone to do so.
What about you? Whose life or family line do you know better than just about anyone else? This makes you the closest thing to an “expert” on that line. (Tread lightly here. One definition of an expert is “a has been under pressure”.) You have something significant you should consider giving it to the greater genealogical community. How do you share it?
I use online trees and DNA to find new cousins. My online tree is bigger, more expansive and less documented than the one I’m building offline. It’s only a tool to find those new cousins. These cousins know more about a particular part of a family line than I do. They have access to documents and therefore documentation I do not have. They often have photos and family lore. This is when I let them “straighten me out”. I’m ready to consider their facts and hear their arguments. Trust, but verify. When I find a researcher (cousin) who will not turn and run the first time we disagree, I find a jewel. I treasure these people in my genealogical research and my life. I could not know what I know today without them. May their tribe increase.
Find other researchers interested in your family line through online trees and DNA results.
Be ready to collaborate. Be generous with your research. Be open to having your work questioned. If you’re right, best genealogical research practices will confirm it. If you’re wrong, you’ve found what you’ve wanted all along – a more accurate representative tree of your family lines.
TIP: When you’re contacted by another researcher and told you may be wrong (or often just told you’re flat-out wrong!), receive it and let them know you welcome their input. Consider them a research partner in this branch of your research. Check out their documentation. If they’re right, admit it. Tell them how right they are and how much you appreciate their work. Right or wrong, let them know you appreciate their effort to assist you.
A cousin once contacted me and told me I might need to check a part of my tree. They believed I was wrong about who and how I had a branch configured. They shared with me their understanding of that branch. Here’s the first thing I thought. It’s unlikely I would know more or be more accurate than this cousin about this part of our shared tree. I listened. I considered. Of course, she was right – and of course I wish I always thought this way!
A “new cousin” recently contacted me and said I might want to reconsider some children I had attributed to a couple in my tree. He sent me transcriptions of two legal documents with source citations. He was right. I did want to reconsider it. His information introduced me to a new person in my tree previously unknown and resolved some conflict in my research. Collaboration.
Become the expert in your branches of the family tree and then freely, willing, joyfully collaborate with others.
Need some help with your genealogy? Need direction? Need encouragement? Keep your eyes on the prize.
Alice Wine of Johns Island, South Carolina is credited with these words from the early days of the civil rights movement. Various versions were sung in the battle for equal rights. Inspired by an earlier spiritual song entitled Gospel Plow, the words remind us that no matter how difficult things become, we must keep our eyes on the prize. Remember where you’re going, what you’re trying to accomplish. Refuse to allow problems to keep you from obtaining the prize.
I’m hesitant to use this phrase in the discussion of genealogy because of its origin. I don’t wish to lessen the struggle for civil rights in any way but I view the principle as almost universal in accomplishing anything with or without significance. If you want to get something done, obtain a goal, you must keep your eyes on the prize.
The family historian knows this struggle.
What’s the prize in your genealogy research? You tell me. Why did you first get into genealogy? What are you trying to accomplish now? Are your eyes fixed resolutely on your prize?
I was late to hunt. But I wanted to know about my father’s family because I knew so little. I needed to, as TV’s NCIS New Orleans character Dwayne Pride says, “learn things”. I now have a partial timeline for my Roberts family covering over 200 years. I have hundreds of pages of documents related to my direct line and have written several blogs about this family. I also have an equal amount of information, if not more, on my mother’s Byrd family. So, why has my research slowed to a crawl?
Life. Like you, I’m busy, perhaps as busy as I’ve ever been. I’m near the end of my life’s journey and there are things I want to do, including but not limited to family research. There are, believe it or not, some things more important than genealogy.
Loss of focus. The reality is my family history research suffers more from a loss of focus than my busyness. I may not do as much when I’m busy with other things, but I can do some. If I don’t, it’s probably a loss of focus. I’ll explain more.
Laziness. I’m not typically a lazy person. Most of my life, however, I’ve worked more with my mind than with my hands. Watching others work so well and diligently with their hands often makes me feel lazy. In my research, I can see laziness creep in when I lose focus or things become difficult. Laziness may also show itself in the constant clicking of internet links, chasing the “shiny objects” of genealogy, or building our family trees on the research of others without gaining the genealogical proof.
When I began
When I began, I wanted to know about my dad’s family. That was my prize. Having learned so many wonderful and at times fascinating things, I wanted to share these facts with my family and preserve their legacy for my children and grandchildren. This became my prize. It fueled the energy to begin this blog. It inspired me to take my grandchildren on family history trips. It’s the reason I may pause but can’t quit this “hobby” of family research.
Backtracking my family and leaving their stories for my children and grandchildren is still the prize on which I must keep my eyes in my genealogical research.
In my research, I discovered many stories to tell. It’s important to document these stories. What are the sources for the facts behind the story? Can others read my research and come to the same conclusions? What good is a legacy without proof? A tale? A myth?
This brings me to the little prizes I must pursue to obtain my big prize. Think of it this way. If my big prize is well documented and written stories about my family left for my children and grandchildren, I need to pursue a series of smaller prizes along the way to obtain my big prize. Big prizes cannot be gained without taking many smaller steps. As I write these words, I’m reminded how many times I’ve read and heard versions of this same advice. Experienced genealogists and longtime family historians have written and shared these thoughts long before I began my sporadic research in 2012. I should apply their experience and pursue the little prizes which help me reach my big prize and document it all as I go. Think about your own research.
Have a goal. Have a goal before you boot up your computer or get in your car to go to a library or research facility. Discover and document ____________. What do you want to do? What are you trying to learn that will help you accomplish the “big prize”? the Familysearch Wiki page has an excellent article entitled “Principle of Family History Research”. Click the title and give it a careful read. Learn more here and here.
Follow the Genealogical Proof Standards. If you don’t know what this is, please take time to click and read. This is the best way to create certainty about the stories we wish to pass to future generations.
Write it all down. Every fact I find will not make it into this blog but I need it recorded, documented, saved and backed up in at least two places for future generations to use
I may not always have something to say to the genealogical community at large but I’ll always have something to say to my grandchildren. I need to keep my eyes on this prize. One goal after another (small prizes) to reach one big prize. Perhaps as I do and write some of it down here, you’ll find something useful or entertaining in your own research.
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”