Wednesday, October 23, 2019

"On Seeking Famous Ancestors" or "Why Do You Do Genealogy?"

It is difficult to know where to start advising the genealogy novice on which pitfalls to avoid. To a great extent they’re interconnected, and to try to single one out is to traverse ground that all or many share. I could begin talking about citing sources, good note-keeping, staying organized, where/how to find good information, or several other topics that justifiably vie for initial attention. For example, the danger of seeking famous ancestors constitutes a pitfall that is closely tied to finding and citing good sources. But while many advisors approach the former somewhat surreptitiously, via positive advice about the latter, I’m going to address this subject head-on.

The danger of seeking famous ancestors is simply stated: the beginner’s inexperience, excitement, and wishful thinking may lead him/her to add names to their tree without strong evidence to support them. Unless the famous person you seek to be related to is relatively close kin, you’re going to have to build a tree with many people between this person and you. And if just one of these relationships does not come with primary evidence, your whole connection is suspect at best.

What is “primary evidence”? I’ll talk more about this in future posts, but here’s a simple definition: primary evidence is source information that was created at or near the time of an event by people who had direct involvement or witness to it. Sources that contain this evidence are, as has sometimes been stated, the building blocks of history.

If you’re a beginner, how many fact assertions in your tree can you support with primary evidence? For how many people in even your recent generations can you do this? If the answer is few or none, you should stop worrying about seeking famous ancestors and start solidifying your thicker family tree branches close to the trunk. 

Because the honest truth is this: relatively few of us will be able to demonstrate a connection to a famous person (a household name), and especially a famous person of the remote past (such as a medieval monarch), with anything approaching sufficient evidence. Donald Lines Jacobus devoted a short chapter to royal ancestry in his seminal volume, Genealogy as Pastime and Profession (which should be required reading for beginning genealogists). Here’s a good excerpt:  "
Just what advantage there is in claiming a fractional drop of royal blood, is a complete mystery. For every one descent I might claim from King Alfred, I could claim a million from the peasants of his time, if records had been kept of the lower classes...But if one finds amusement in embarking on this kind of adventure, surely it loses even what little significance it possesses unless care be taken to verify each link in the ancestral chain, for if a single link give way, the royal descent is a mere fiction. The credulity of Americans, even of many American genealogists, in matters of this sort is sad to witness." (Donald Lines Jacobus, Genealogy as Pastime and Profession, Second Edition Revised [Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc., 1986], p. 35. Emphasis mine.)


That’s sobering stuff from one of the major pioneers of American genealogy. Granted, he was writing this in about 1930, but little seems to have changed since then. Many posts on social media, not to mention legions of online trees, proudly continue to claim famous genealogical connections with little to no support offered for them. One major company, which shall for the moment remain nameless, even advertises the following: “Do You Have Royal Blood?” This is sheer opportunism, designed to take advantage of the most genealogically vulnerable. 


“But,” I hear you say, “someone in this world has to be descended from royalty or related to famous people and can prove it. Why not me?”

True, there will be some people who are actually related to or descended from famous people and can possibly demonstrate it. In that case, the best way to discover such a connection is through what I call the organic method. It entails no conscious seeking for famous individuals. Instead, the researcher discovers his/her relation to a notable person incidentally, just as he/she should with any other person. This is done through a source-centric approach: following the evidence wherever it leads us, adding names/connections/facts as our records reliably reveal them, and refusing to let our imaginations run away with us.

So far, I’ve outlined a logical argument for avoiding the reckless Famous Person Quest. Many won’t be convinced by it, since for them emotion is the overriding consideration. In that case, I’ll close with an appeal to emotion: why do you do genealogy? Is it to “find” the ancestors you wish were yours, or to discover the ones that actually are yours? Is your need to demonstrate connection to fame more important to you than learning the actual truth about how you got here?

As far as I can currently tell, all of my known ancestors were lower middle class or poor. But every bit I learn about them is precious to me. They may not have been powerful or famous, but they were mine. And actually, the fact that they weren’t powerful or famous gives me a special kind of satisfaction all by itself: my forebears overcame tremendous hardships to support their families and produce descendants. I honor their memories by telling their real stories. I invite you to do likewise.

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