Lessons from Eugene Stratton’s Applied Genealogy (1988)

If I could arm twist all my fellow genealogy hobbyists into reading Stratton’s Applied Genealogy, I could die knowing I had left the world a saner place.

book cover

Applied Genealogy, 1988 ed.

One

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 family (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).

 Two

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. 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.

Three

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 (a great deal more common than many of us may think) are discussed, 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.

 Four

History and genealogy are symbiotic and their canoodling matters. I added context to AMB’s life by reading good Plymouth history such as Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War and Roger 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.

 Five

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 skillset 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).

Six

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!)

Seven

Make notes on the notes you are taking. 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.

 Eight

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.

 

 

 

The Knife

Aside

Look at these two images of seventeenth century kitchen instruments:

Jamestown kitchen instrumentsJamestown kitchen instruments

Granted, these images come from Jamestown, VA excavations.  However, if we can assume Plymouth Colony had carving and piercing tools similar to these, we have a grim look into how much it took to kill Martha Clarke.  These tools do not appear razor sharp nor very large.  While the diameter of Martha’s neck was, likely, no more than five inches, knives like these would have required focused hacking to get the job done.

Research into Plymouth Colony tools reveals the presences of axes, daggers, a few swords and shears. But AMB likely used what she had in her kitchen — a smaller knife forged of iron.  All metal ware was costly and difficult to procure in early Plymouth.  Indeed, the 1681 will of wealthy Nicholas Nickerson reveals he owned only three knives. As noted in the court records, Martha was found with multiple cuts across her windpipe.