Erin Taylor, May 2014
It doesn’t matter if Stratton’s book was published before the genealogy mother lode: Internet access. Genealogy is a honed craft requiring discipline and standards. Don’t call it genealogical research if you rely solely on Ancestry.com and the dream that you’re related to the Duck Dynasty Robertsons (no joke, my Louisiana Robertson family’s aspiration). That’s a self-esteem-building hobby. Or, quoting Stratton, “I have come to believe that wishful thinking is one of the most deadly enemies of genealogists” (134, in footnotes).
Until the Internet provides free and fully accessible access to all primary source documentation, we must continue to mine genealogical libraries, historical societies, and home town museums. Even the almighty Ancestry.com admits that just 5% of all genealogical records are available online. The gasp-worthy story of your ancestor, General Beauregard Duponte, merits you move away from this screen and experience as much of a re-creation of his life as you can. Genealogy should be hard on your feet as well as your eyes.
A person’s name, as listed in a genealogical record, may not settle who they are and from which parents they came. See Stratton, pages 101–103, where children of unmarried mothers are discussed (a great deal more common than many of us may think) as well as chapter 5 on onomastic evidence — the study of the origins of proper names. After studying Stratton, I had to rationally conclude what I didn’t want to admit: AMB was not likely the orphaned daughter of Mayflower treasurer Christopher Martin. Stratton set me straight.
History and genealogy are symbiotic and their canoodling matters. I added context to AMB’s life by reading good Plymouth history such as Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War and Thompson’s Sex in Middlesex. Stratton refers to Thompson’s book and I have to believe the genea-jedi master would have respected Philbrick’s as well. We cannot study our ancestors in a vacuum. Understanding their worldview; their notions of family, success, tragedy, and honor; the historical events taking place in their community — these are just as significant as birth certificates, censuses, and trial records.
The Internet is rotten with genealogy tramps. I am one of them, perhaps more escort than hooker status. But I am not a board-certified genealogist. I have nowhere near the skill set these professionals earn and maintain. When we post family histories online that are not appropriately sourced, we are spreading gossip. It may be true, it may have origins in truth, it might be a low down, filthy lie. We should not call ourselves genealogists unless we are professionally trained and certified as such (the same reason I don’t call myself a sommelier just because I have a delightful wine habit).
We surmise objectively, not wistfully. With our own eyes, we look at every primary source we can. When questions remain, we own that in our writing. I made a big ol’ assumption in the AMB story and the impact was two-fold. First, a whole pack of cousins celebrated their Mayflower ancestry based on my erroneous conclusions. Secondly, I used standards and drew conclusions any genealogists worth their DNA would have frowned upon. Read chapter 9 often in Applied Genealogy (“Forgivable Sins”) and be comfortable stating there are gaps in your research — often wonderful people come forward to help you out! (True story: This is how Kristin Luce came on board this blog.)
Make notes on the notes you make. Not all sources, even primary ones, are of the same caliber. Family historians should keep track of their sources as either eyewitness or hearsay. In other words, they were actually present when the event happened versus they heard about it from an eyewitness. Another consideration is whether the document is an original iteration or has been transcribed by clerks, priests, or historians. The Bill of Rights is an example of something available to us exactly the way it was in 1789. The Bible is not: it’s been edited, translated, and passed through many, many ink-stained hands. A vast majority of the materials we work with are transcribed to some degree even if we call them primary source documents. Notes in the margin have been removed; portions edited out as superfluous. 1787 becomes 1781, Frances becomes Francis.
Indirect evidence, hints at what might be, are crucial to our research. Stratton provides a quote from Henry David Thoreau (107): “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” I cannot tell you if AMB was a happy, psychotic, morose, abused, or philandering wife and mother. The only reality I can build about her life is this: Plymouth was a challenging place to live. A litter of little ones is exhausting. AMB had no family of origin nearby that we know of. I can consider what my emotional landscape would have been if I had lived in that time and amongst those circumstances. Nonetheless, I cannot understand AMB’s choice to murder her child. The most subtle yet significant lesson of Stratton’s is this: Family history requires more empathy than glorification.