Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Ultimate Family Historians

Who are The Ultimate Family Historians? All of us who are now doing genealogy and family history should begin to consider ourselves in this category. That probably includes you.

The term "Family Historian" means more than "Genealogist." To do basic genealogy, you don't have to compile more than the bare facts of birth, marriage, and death. A person who interviews family members and fills out a pedigree chart is beginning genealogy. Family history, however, involves finding out more than just the facts that will fit on a pedigree chart. To do family history we must know, as much as possible, how the people in the family actually lived. Then we record their stories and put meat on the bare bones of genealogy.

Many of us start out as amateur genealogists, and we may not see ourselves as doing any history. When I first started genealogy more than thirty years ago, I was merely trying to compile a long pedigree chart. I started by asking my grandfather some questions. I remember my grandfather telling me some stories about the family, and I thought, "I don't want to hear all of that. I wish he'd just tell me where they were born and the names of their parents." Really! I thought that! Now I want to kick my old self. I wish I would have recorded those stories in more detail.

Then I started getting "serious." Back then, I had to write letters to potential relatives and hope that they responded. I had to write letters and send checks to churches, courthouses, and governmental agencies. Sometimes I would wait for months for a response. Sometimes the response never came. I used to laugh that I was the only person I knew who would get excited by getting a death certificate in the mail.

I compiled my charts, collected whatever facts I could, and received a few photos. Most people didn't want to give up their original photos, and it could be inconvenient and even expensive to make more copies. Often they would send me photocopies of photographs. All of my documents went into file folders. My folders were organized by family surname, but that system wasn't fully adequate. I had to do a lot of cross-referencing.

If they existed, I ordered microfilms of records from the areas where my ancestors lived. I waited weeks for each film to arrive. Because most of the records weren't indexed, I had to roll page by page through every film. When I found an ancestor, I often had to make several paper copies of the record before I would get one that was readable. I spent many hundreds of dollars ordering films and making photocopies. I traveled all over the country to research in courthouses and walk through cemeteries to find tombstones.

Of course, there was really no good way to share each new discovery unless someone happened to find out about me and wrote me a letter requesting information. I conducted thousands of hours of research, and only I could see it.

That was before computers, scanners, digital cameras, the Internet, email, and the many other conveniences we now take for granted. We can locate records in seconds that used to take years to find. Again, in seconds we can find people who are related to us who may live thousands of miles away. We can communicate with them instantly and receive an immediate response. We can send them a digital copy of a photograph that is better quality than the original we have.

We can become The Ultimate Family Historians.

The word "Ultimate" has several meanings. Two of them are:
  • The last in a series or progression
  • The best or most extreme of its kind
I intend to help all of you become The Ultimate Family Historians with both of the above meanings. I'll explain how next.