Monday, February 20, 2012

Sweating the Details

I've been reading blogs when I ought to be doing some other real world things. And now I'm writing when I ought to be doing real world things. One of the greatest attractions of genealogy/family history is its endless ability to distract me from the real world.

That said, my point here is a bit of heresy. Michael Hait started the wheel's turning with his post What is a conclusion?. Russ Worthington chimed in with When to enter data into your genealogy software?. Then Randy Seaver posted Events, Assertions, Evidence, Fact, Sources, Analysis, Conclusions, Software, Oh My! Read them all.

After reading Randy's post I revisited Michael's and read the comments. When I got to Martin's I cheered.
"Most ages do not agree visa-vis the census. Do we really need to GPS [Genealogical Proof Standard] every single person, or can we just conclude that ages in censuses vary? Genealogy is proving relationships. I can understand that proving a relationship might incur the GPS, but every fact or event?"
Amen. Maybe it's because much of my research involves 18th and early 19th c. frontier areas where few records were kept. Maybe it's because I am not a genealogist, but a family historian and an historian by training. Maybe it's because I'm comfortable with chaos and confusion. But I do not have the need to prove every "fact" as Hait defines them. I am content to know my research subjects were born, to learn as much as I can about their lives and relationships, and that they died. I can live with conflicting information as to specific dates and places.

And frankly (hold on to your hats here), I don't need death certificates or birth certificates for the people I've known in my life. Someone else further down the line can hunt for those if they wish. I'm perfectly comfortable stating a birth or death date based on my personal knowledge.

I'm a big picture gal. Give me the overview, the route, the story. I want every detail I can find, but I'm not going to sweat it if a death certificate and marriage license differ on birth dates. If those differences suggest the documents are not for the same person, we can talk. If not, I'm moving on. It doesn't change the relationships.

I'm not going to obsess over each fact or event or assertion. Just as long as you don't tell me the Mulkey marker proves Jonathan's wives. Them's fighting words.


  1. Thanks for reading my post!

    Being trained as a historian, presumably in the 20th/21st century, your attitude toward specific facts is understandable. Historians have moved away from reporting of facts to interpretation of events and principles. Whether my ancestor was born on October 1 in New York or October 2 in Connecticut (adjacent towns), may not concern anyone looking at the big picture.

    On the other hand, if you are reconstructing the life of a person, gathering every piece of evidence and evaluating *does* affect whether or not you are working with the same person. Reconciling conflicting information *does* affect the identification of relationships. Even identifying something as simple as the exact date of birth is important. Two children cannot be born to the same mother 5 months apart. All other evidence might suggest the same mother, and "obsessing" over this fact might be the only information that conflicts. But it is a very real piece of information that will put everything else into question.

    1. And thank you for reading my post, Michael!

      I don't disagree with your points at all. If evidence suggests one's conclusions are in error or suspect then it is important to make that clear. But when it does not change one's conclusions I am willing to live with ambiguity. Note, I am not suggesting ignoring information. I will not say someone was born in Tennessee if there is evidence to the contrary, be it as weak as the 1880 census. I will say most evidence suggests she was born in Tennessee and accept that I cannot prove it.

    2. Susan,

      Thank you for joining the conversation.

      I may be wrong, but I think the what Michael was talking about was from a Professional Genealogist point of view that is Project focused.

      What I think that you and I are about, if finding the stories behind the people, as messy as that may be at times.

      Michael's project will have an end date, based on an agreement with a client, while you had I may have an open ended agreement with our families. Mine is and will always be a 'work in progress'.

      That does not imply that we don't try to get the best, most accurate information, Cite our Sources, and at times do an evaluation on what we have.

      Again, thank you for your insight.


  2. Thanks for pointing me to these thought-provoking posts, Susan.

  3. I'm with you, Susan. Thanks for your post. I didn't get into this to obsess about the difference between a birth date of "March 3, 1897" on a birth record and "1897" on a later census record (of course if there is a real problem, for instance if I have scant evidence of that person's parents, well then sure, every piece of evidence must be obsessed over, that's fine). Personally I think it's just common sense.

  4. I was thinking about your post this morning, Susan. I wish my parents, grandparents, and other ancestors had taken a different view and collected and saved their birth, marriage, and death records. If they'd kept documents in previous generations my search would be so much easier now. Why not collect the easily accessible current/recent documents now and put them with your family history, thereby saving a lot of work for your descendants and anyone else searching the same family history in the future? (I'm taking a long view of the situation here.)

    1. You're right, of course, Nancy. I suppose it's a question of how I want to spend my time. My first, second, and third priorities are slogging through the boxes I've inherited so my children don't have to deal with a hundred years of shopping lists and clutter. For every pearl there are 100 things I throw away. The vital records will be available. This stuff won't be.

    2. Ah, yes, I see what you mean, Susan. If I were in your situation I think I'd do the same. Oh, to have boxes to slog through! Can you tell I'm a little envious? Despite being a saver, my mom passed on only a few obituaries, some newspaper clippings, one photo album, one scrapbook, and a few other items. Yes, I would love to have boxes. (But then the grass is always greener....)

  5. I focus on details such as dates of birth and death mostly when it is critical to proving relationships but, like you, if there is no doubt about the relationship, I don't agonize over it. Well, maybe just a little bit, if I think that someone was trying to hide his or her actual age (woman much older than husband, man claiming he fought in the Civil War when he was probably no more than 7 years old when it ended, etc.).


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