Genealogy: What’s It All About?

“What’s It All About Alfie?”

Song title Burt Bacharach & Hal David

In genealogy we use lots of metaphors for what we are trying to do when faced with a dearth of evidence, and often what we have is circumstantial at best.

  • Reading Tea Leaves
  • Following Bread Crumbs
  • Fitting Pieces into a Jigsaw Puzzle
  • Putting Flesh on the Bones
  • Going on Treasure Hunts, without a Map
  • Scrambling Down Rabbit or Gopher Holes
  • Firing up the Old Time Machine
  • Crystal Ball Gazing
  • Communing with the Dead, hoping they will speak to us somehow, someway

After nearly half a century I am quite familiar with all of them and I am not at all embarrassed to admit that I will use anything to get at the truth of an ancestor’s story. I know in some circles these methods will be met with eye rolling or disdain. No both, we do what we have to do. Sometimes breadcrumbs are all we have. And even as breadcrumbs do not a loaf make…we do what we have to do. Clamber over stiles, plough through muddy fields, name your metaphor, the intrepid genealogist has done it, in metaphor or in fact.

The good thing about breadcrumbs is they lead us to places we never intended to go. And this is the very best thing about genealogy. Genealogy is not just filling in boxes on a tree,rather it is being led to new and unexplored places, physical and metaphorical. Oh how I wish, that back in Junior High and High School, I had been able to connect to what I was studying in a more personal way. So much I have learned about geography, history, anthropology, archeology, architecture and so forth is due to my desire and need to see my ancestors in the context of where they lived and what was going on around them. I can accurately fill in a blank map of the United States and do a fair job on the countries of Europe and the shires of England or even the counties of Germany! This is not due to geography coursework, but rather learning through the day to day research on my families and their origins.

Sometimes I muse on what drives a person to spend a half century on trying to unlock mysteries of their long dead kin? I think Maud Newton has some interesting thoughts in her book Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation. She Writes “I, too, believe that our family dead, and our relationship to them, are important, to me as an individual and to humanity as a collective.” At some point we all need to ask ourselves this question: What is Genealogy all About for me? I think I can finally answer that for myself.  I want to understand who I am in the context of my kin. How can their lives inform my own? I want to understand where I, where we, add to the great soup of humanity. Simply I just want to understand in some primordial way, what is it all about?

So crumbs do not a loaf make. However, they provide enough nourishment to see you through. As has been said in many ways it’s not the destination, but the journey. So, while some of my fellow genealogists are busy with lists, filling in names and ticking of boxes give me a few bread crumbs and off I go on another adventure, learning as I go. A few years back my girlfriend, Denise, and I went on a trip to Scotland. Our tour guide, Donald, when asked about times and plans he told us, “It’s guidelines—it is all just guidelines.” I have come to use this as my personal mantra, especially when it comes to genealogy. Whether you are a beginning genealogist / family historian or a more seasoned one, let me suggest that whatever you have been taught, told, etc. that all the rules—-they’re all “just guidelines.”

Everyone has their favorite or “best” way to organize, research, color code, document, etc. And yes there are guides to just about how you should do EVERYTHING that is genealogy related. But the idea that everyone needs to follow the same rules is nonsense. They always start out to be helpful, until they are not. We start out with one idea, one bread crumb, and often end up far from where we started. We make a commitment to log every resource we consulted. I did this for the first five years or so—but after 50 that’s ridiculous, it would take longer to enter all that into a database and check than it would to retrace your steps. I know more than I did back then. I say to myself, “Oh I remember this!” I don’t think oh silly me, but rather, “thank God I came back to this, look what else is here!.”

Let there be no shame in doing genealogy any way that works for you. Even if it is one bread crumb at a time.

“When you walk, let your heart lead the way”

Song lyric Burt Bacharach & Hal David

Kelly Wheaton ©2023 – All Rights Reserved

3 Comments on “Genealogy: What’s It All About?”

  1. On the question: What is Genealogy all About for me? I think my motivation is similar to yours in terms of wanting to understand who I am in the context of where/who I have come from and within the context of history and geography generally because the time and place within which people live influences what they do and how they live their lives. In my case, that is from the perspective of an adoptee. I feel strongly about the importance of knowing our roots in order to fully know ourselves and it is important to me that my children understand their heritage as well. For this reason, I am active in researching both my own and my husband’s family history. On the subject of methodology, I just go where the leads take me and try to fill as many gaps as I can to better understand ancestors (and sometimes other collateral line relatives) in the context of their own time and place.

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