REFORMED GENEALOGISTS: Turning Trees into Stories

A REFORMED GENEALOGIST is one who has moved from filling in their Family Tree—-to making the tree bloom through the telling of its family stories.

  • A Reformed genealogist pledges to make unearthing the past and resurrecting ancestors their primary goal.
  • A Reformed genealogist shares with others freely, without excuse. This is the best insurance their legacy survives. Ancestors are shared: so too shall be their stories.
  • A Reformed genealogist knows nothing is ever perfect, complete or without need for improvement, we are undeterred by such odds.
  • A Reformed genealogist pledges to write at least one story each year
  • A Reformed genealogist travels in person or through cyberspace in search of whispers of the past.
  • A Reformed genealogist finds joy in reconnecting our life histories to that of our ancestors.
  • This page began as a post on the Organized Genealogist FACEBOOK page in September of 2015. Within minutes there were more likes and comments than I have ever had to a post, anywhere. That suggested I had hit a nerve. Here is the post.

“This is for NEW GENEALOGISTS or those looking to revamp their systems. First I apologize for sounding like a broken record. I have nearly 45 years of experience so I have seen/done it all. Most of the systems for organizing are just fine when you start out or even ten years in but somewhere along the line the color coded, numeric, alpha numeric, file folders, binders etc is going to break down. 

You may be able to remember 200 ancestors and where they fit into your tree but you aren’t going to remember 10,000. Computerized programs are nice for that. When most of us start doing genealogy we may not have a well thought out GOAL and so the plan to achieve it leads to a breakdown in organizing. As we get older our goals change. We no longer are worried about filling in every blank and shift as I have to telling stories. Perhaps individual 9457 means something to you or FT436. Great. But ask yourself what is this going to mean to your children, grandchildren etc. If they are going to look at all your hard work and either not be able to make sense of it or worse yet not care….then what you have done is fascinating and it may be beautifully arranged but if it isn’t retained or read— well it was just a nice past time. 

What is most compelling about genealogy is the STORIES. Not names and dates but a ticket stub from the World’s fair where grandma met grandpa. Its letters, diaries, photos, its knowing that great grandma married at 14 and searching to find out why. If you start NOW to organize with the idea of telling these stories I guarantee, not only will you be happier, more organized and your research more focused—but so will those that come after you.

You can use any system you want but please think about the stories. Perhaps you have a binder or binders that are organized by surnames, or Irish immigrants or Revolutionary war Veterans. Just make sure to put all the information on any individual or family together. That means everything, not photos here, census there, birth certificates in that folder.

Think of it this way…..do you want to be scattered across files, boxes, cabinets? A bunch of vertebrae in that box and hip bones on the other shelf? If a forensic scientist was trying to reconstruct your skeleton would they not lay out all your bones, put them into order and then if they were trying to reconstruct your life and what you looked like they would slowly add meat to the bones.

Your job: should you choose to accept it, is to resurrect the people that made your life possible. Choose the ones that call to you and start assembling them now. You will be happier and all those that come after you as well. Trust me on this. Organize to tell stories, do not tell stories of how wonderfully you organize!” 

“As a reformed genealogist I have come to realize that names and dates or even photos without context are nothing. It’s who the people are and the stories that need to be recorded that we need to focus on. We may have boxes of photos, but unidentified and devoid of context, they will be lost to our descendants as unknowable.”Random Researching for Reformed Genealogists: Ways to enhance and research your stories

  • Look to free websites like Chronicaling America for newspapers on the date your ancestor was born, married etc.
  • Look to state archives for photos, maps diaries that may be relevant to your ancestors lives.
  • Postcards are often a great way to find illustrations of a village, town etc where your ancestors lived.
  • If your ancestor was a member of the armed services, a fraternal association, alumni of a school, member of the clergy: do a web search and see what you turn up.
  • Check Wikipedia: information, maps and photos you may use in your stories under of the Creative Commons Licensing Agreement.
  • Do a Google search. Maybe your ancestor worked at a garage in a small town. Give a search a try– you might get lucky.
  • Look on Ebay, yes Ebay.
  • Do a search of your local library’s card catalog for places your ancestors lived. Do not reject fiction as a source material. Historical novels are particularly rich in getting you into the feel of the time. Movies are good too. If you don’t like reading, try books on tape.
  • A picture is worth a thousand words. Break up your story telling with photos, maps, deeds, ephemera.
  • Less is more. Good story tellers know that editing is key.  Make the words count, don’t count the words. A tight 3 page story is better than a 30 page essay that no one will read. 
  • Many historical books that are out of copyright are available on-line. These are sometimes obscure manuscripts that you would never have found in a million years. 
  • Children’s books are wonderful sources of information. They often use out if copyright illustrations, wood block cuts and photos in the public domain. Once you find such illustrations you can often do a web search and download them for your own purposes.

Kelly Wheaton Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved

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