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Genealogy and History ~ Two Sides of the Same Coin

(First article in a series, “Introduction to Genealogy”)

by Karen S. Campbell, Southwest Ohio Research

Arnold Toynbee gave us the simplest definition of history.  History is “just one d__n thing after another.”    However, it is not quite that simple.  What makes the study of history complicated is that this stream of “one thing after another” is in reality quite dynamic, interactive, and free flowing due to human involvement and interaction.  The flow of events in time are multi-layered and intertwined.  And, this stream of  many “one things after another” is perceived differently by contemporary witnesses who usually argue with each other about the meaning of the events.  Then, to add to the complication, the original experience itself is re-interpreted differently by succeeding generations.  Any event, “one thing after another,” can never be observed with complete objectively by the human beings present, those standing in the stream of events itself, or even by those who initiated those events.   People removed by many years from the events, who have gain some benefits from objectivity, can still seriously misjudge the events due to a lack of reliable historical facts, which have been obscured by time.

 In addition to these concerns, human perception can be myopic and too often willing to impose it’s own uninformed interpretation upon what appears to be a stream of random events. Our point of view on the past can be tainted by our emotional needs or by dearly held pet theories.  Our perception is subjective. Unfortunately, human nature is incapable of divine objectivity.  We can not see or understand the totality of events or all the outcomes.  Just think how often we throw up our arms in despair when we don’t understand the everyday events in our own lives?  How then can we judge the broader events of history?

There is a great commercial on TV entitled “The Human Element: Chemistry and Humanity”.  It explains that chemical elements naturally bond with other chemical elements but when the “human element” is added to the equation suddenly everything changes and chemistry illuminates humanity and all of humanity illuminates chemistry. As the narrator says, the  “human element” is fundamental, elemental, and a catalyst of change.   We can say the same for the “human element” in history. Although we don’t completely understand the intricacies involved in the process of time, we know that the “human element” in history is the engine of change.   In short, what complicates the investigation of  history is the “human element” in those involved in events and those trying to interpret them, or as we might say “interacting” with them from a different time period. As researchers we need to emphasize the positive “human elements” which help to illuminate history, not those that obscure it, so that history can illuminate human nature.

Reflecting a little on both the nature of history and the “human element” helps us to realize how careful we must be in our study of history, whether family, local, national, or international history, and, how reluctant we should be to pontificate about historical events without study, reflection, and humility. Many public figures and politicians today interpret history rather willy-nilly to prove a point in debate or argument, speaking as if they are great authorities when in fact they have indulged in very little, if no, fact checking. This disregard for facts makes a mockery of history and illustrates a very negative aspect of the “human element.” Let us not look back to the past to distort it.  History must not be strangled with our lumbering ideologies projected onto the past.

Likewise, looking at history “through rose colored glasses” without some serious study, can generate stereotypes and generalities that obscure the lessons of history. The past is not a grab-bag of convenient proofs that only exists to help maintain modern theories.  History is not superficial. It is only so if we make it so.  Henry Adams warns us not to impose our beliefs and attitudes on  history:

The historian must not try to know what is truth, if he values his honesty; for if he cares for his truths, he is certain to falsify his facts.


We can learn important lessons from history only if we preserve its integrity; if we see the events in context and appreciate the depths of human social interaction. The perusal of a historic time period is like entering a foreign country where we find that things are done differently than in our familiar country. And like strangers in a strange land, we must be careful where we tread and the conclusion that we draw.  We should seek the facts of what really happened whether researching our family history or broader history.  Ideally, the goal of the researcher is to always respectfully re-construct history as best as s/he can with as much corroborated evidence as s/he can find and as unbiased as s/he can.  The past can speak for itself. It can speak through well researched and in-depth information especially when a researcher takes a step back from the emerging picture so the evidence can be presented with as little bias as possible. Genealogist and historians are not historical novelists nor are they propaganda writers. They are not “talking head” commentators or entertainers who want to popularize the past.  The stories of history should be, as much as possible, told by those who lived it. We should strive first to understand how they understood their existence.  There should be no expunging of facts. No demonizing or saint-making.  Let the truth of their lives stand forth, warts and all. Once that is established through a keen analysis of evidence, only then can we ask questions and draw lessons from their experience for our lives.

Not too long ago many people were upset by what they misidentified as “revisionist” history.  The best example of this being the controversial publication of proof that Thomas Jefferson had a relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, who was also his wife’s half-sister.  Some felt that history itself was being changed.  What was changing was not the actual history but our perception of it.  Our predominantly white culture was biased and did not want to deal with the ugly realities of slavery, especially in connection with a revered president. None-the-less, scholars began to study our history from multiple perspectives, especially the African-American perspective, which had been consistently ignored for hundreds of years.  Today there are some who still do not believe that Jefferson was the father of six children with Sally, but, their arguments against this must be rooted in the known facts, not in a general denial of  the sexual offenses of many slave owners or a patriotic desire to keepJefferson from scandal. Our American history belongs to us all and should be examined from diverse perspectives to gain a clearer view onto the past, which can correct mistaken or narrow interpretations.

It is humanly impossible to keep from reading present realities back into history.  As the famous African-American historian John Hope Franklin pointed out even for professional historians:

The writing of history reflects the interests, predilections, and even prejudices of a given generation.”

But, if we know we have these inclinations, we can compensate for them.  The genealogical and historical researcher must be aware of his/her own biases and limitations. Every human being has biases, which have developed through life experience and educational opportunities.  If you are human, you have a bias.  Your point-of-view effects how you perceive history. The key is to realize that you do have a bias; and maybe more than one bias. Only when you have acknowledged your biases can you partially liberate yourself from them.

Most importantly, a researcher seeks reliable evidence and then needs to analyze and critique his/her primary and secondary sources:

  • Aprimary source” is a written record that was created as close to the time of the real event as possible by someone who witnessed it directly or was perhaps once removed from the event (i.e. the testimony of a mother of the birth of her child and the official birth certificate which is witnessed by someone who attended the birth.  Primary records can include government and non-government agencies and individual record keepers of a wide variety).
  • A “secondary source” is a written record removed from the event itself. It is usually an edited report about an event such as a newspaper announcement of a birth or a compilation of similar events, i.e. abstracts and indexes of the original births records. The secondary record will hopefully point back to the primary sources from which it was compiled.

 The “primary” source is considered the most reliable proof.  Remember, that it is the piece of information closest to the event provided by a direct participant that is “primary.”  Sometimes figuring out which evidence is “primary” is not as easy as we think.

An example of an excellent secondary source, a huge compilation of interviews of surviving participants in the Underground Railroad, is the Wilbur H. Siebert’s  Collection located in the Ohio Historical Society Archive on microfilm.   He and his history students at Ohio State University collected testimony from surviving UGRR conductors or their descendents during the 1890s throughout the United States.  He used a standard questionnaire, mailing them to surviving conductors or their descendents.  UGRR researchers should be concerned about the distance in time between the statements made in the collection and the actual events. A researcher must judge the quality of each testimony by comparing it to additional evidence.  Ideally, a participant’s testimony should be corroborated by other evidence such as found in family journals, autobiographies or memoirs, archaeology, local histories, scholarly sources such as books, articles, theses and dissertations, unpublished manuscripts, county and township records, city directories, almanacs and gazetteers, calendars, photographs, records of anti-slavery societies, vigilance committees, benevolent groups and churches, contemporary newspapers and periodicals, legal and court records, manuscript collections, and maps.  Hopefully, some of these sources may be earlier, closer to the actual events, than Siebert’s research in the 1890s. Unfortunately, in many cases, the statements made by the UGRR conductors in their old age or made by their children are the closest direct testimony about the actual events fifty or sixty years earlier. Most of the sources listed above are by nature “secondary” sources. A relatively rare source to be much desired is a “personal” or “family journal” dating from the time of activity, which, if it includes written reports concerning UGRR undertakings, would be considered a “primary source.” Testimony made fifty years later can be skewed .  The greater the distance from the event, the more human memory is effected and thus the need for supporting evidence. If the conductor was dead, the testimony of a descendent should be considered  “secondary”. Their testimony is once removed from the parent’s.  Even if present as a child, a son’s or daughter’s memories would be limited. Another consideration in analyzing Siebert’s collection is that it is incomplete and biased since it barely mentions the participation of African-American conductors and organizations in the UGRR.  It’s perspective was too narrow.

A researcher will also encounter oral traditions since history is more than written evidence.  Oral evidence is difficult to prove.  But, stories and legends that seem to be outrageous or impossible may contain a seed of truth; even if only a tiny clue.  Be critical of the oral information, just as you should critique written sources.   To give an example of a questionable legend, regional stories about buried treasure are usually apocryphal. The small town of Waynesville, Ohiohas a legend that General Mad Anthony Wayne buried his quartermaster’s payroll along Camp Creek within the later site of Waynesville on his way to fight the Shawnee Indians in northwestOhio.  This, and other similar legends, are often just wishful thinking on the part of treasure hunters.

An example of an oral tradition containing a core of truth is enshrined in Alex Haley’s book Roots, which details his search for his ancestor Kunta Kinte. The paper trail going back in history only went so far. The African oral tradition proved to be just as reliable as any written-paper proof.  The oral record lead straight back to Kunta once Haley found the right village and the local bard recited the village’s oral history.  There is a legend in my own family that the Campbell’s came over from England on the Pilgrims’ Mayflower.  Well, this was not possible.  We eventually found the source of the legend; a pewter tea set that traveled with the Campbell family on a flatboat down the Ohio River when they left Virginia for Ohio.  The flatboat’s name was “Mayflower”.  Remember that human memory is a remarkable thing but it can also be frail and like a computer file can be easily “corrupted”. Always try to find substantial written sources to support oral traditions.

Today, the professional standard for researchers, whether genealogical or historical, is to seek a preponderance of proof.  It used to be that if you found three pieces of evidence concerning an individual and two agreed, that was sufficient proof.  It is best, however, to examine all possible sources, written and oral, to critique those sources as to their reliability, and then decide if the information is factual.  As you collect good evidence, your facts will intertwine to create a growing picture of the past.   A “preponderance” of proof would also include the study of family members, friends, co-workers,, etc.  “No man (no person) is an island.”

When researching, be meticulous in recording your evidence on your pedigree and family charts and in your notes (title of book, CD-Rom, or website, author/compiler, publisher, date, page number, location of source) and date the day and time of your research.  As you proceed you will discover that you will spend a great deal of time keeping track of all your references, your correspondence, and even the relevant  artifacts you find (i.e.  photographs, albums, letters, ephemera, etc).

If you eventually enter your research into genealogy software such as Family Tree Maker, Roots Magic, Reunion, Brother’s Keeper, or one of the many other software options,  you will be able to add all of your references.  If you share your unpublished manuscript with libraries or publish your work, researchers will want to know where you found your sources and the quality of those sources, both primary and secondary.  Maintaining a bibliography of all the sources is a must.  It is professional courtesy to provide this information for future generations of researchers.  An unpublished manuscript or a published book, is a “secondary source” hopefully full of helpful references to “primary” sources that strongly support your re-construction of the past.

Remember the old saying, “Respect the dead.”  Remember that you, the researcher, are reconstructing the lives of real people . . . dead people, yes, but real people, none-the-less.  Part of the process of showing “respect” is to understand your ancestors’ lives in historical context.  Your ancestors made their choices in the context of the historical and social realities of their day. Make an effort to understand those historical realities. Let the people of the past speak again with clarity. Perhaps one-hundred years from today, your descendents will want to research your life.  You would want them to be respectful, careful,  and thorough in their investigations of your life and other significant persons in your life. You would want to be quoted correctly.  You would want your descendents to discover a three-dimensional “you” and come to know you just as you really are in the context of your time.  The recording of birth, marriage, and death dates is basic to genealogy and biography but it is just the beginning of an investigation. I compare researching to journeying.  Imagine yourself as an old fashioned explorer preparing to traverse a little known part of the world.  Think of yourself embarking on a safari of discovery.  Perhaps, you’d prefer to think of yourself as a detective; a Sherlock Holmes solving the mysteries of the past. Whatever image you choose, you will be embarking on a fascinating journey.  Be prepared with the necessary skills of tenaciousness, observation, and analysis.

Genealogy (family history research) and history are “two sides of the same coin”, and demand the same skills and dedication.  When beginning your research, you must realize that genealogical and historical  research is a long process and that organization and analytical skills are needed to properly sift through evidence.  “The games afoot!”  Let’s get prepared!

(The next article will examine how and where to begin your research with suggestions on how to organize your evidence and the costs involved. Future articles will address the variety of primary and secondary sources.)

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