Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Friday, August 12, 2016

Can you spin stories into golden genealogy?

Public Domain, This is photo of a reenactment. 
Genealogy is a paradox. At one end of the spectrum it is all about emotions, stories, inspiring ancestors and finding yourself. At other end it is all about research, accuracy, evaluating historical documents and drawing tightly reasoned conclusions. The paradox is that they are both the same thing, separately meshed in one continuum. It is the blind men and the elephant all over again with the elephant representing genealogy. Some of the genealogists are holding onto the tail and some a promoting the trunk, but they are all really talking about the same thing.

Ask yourself this question: where do the stories about our ancestors come from?

The most popular story about one of my remote ancestors was written down for the first time by his grandson who only saw his grandfather when he was a child. He wrote it down only after the story had been told through two generations. The codification of the story was passed down to me both orally and in the form of books and magazine articles containing versions of the story written by the grandson. It is a good story. It is an inspiring story. It is a living story. But how does it become family history or genealogy? If someone had not collected and preserved the story, there wouldn't be a story to tell. The people who wrote the books were an academics and scholars but the story was still written down, codified if you will, as passed on by the grandson. There are no other known original accounts of the story.

How would you know the stories without a teller? The reality is that the genealogists are the tellers, the preservationists, the archivists and the librarians of our joint heritage. It is true that some genealogists were inspired to become genealogists by the stories of their ancestors. But it takes more than a good story to motivate someone to do genealogical research.

When I was much younger, I worked on a National Science Foundation grant at the University of Utah for a professor named Wick Miller. During his long professional life, he recorded the stories of the Shoshoni language from one of the very last native speakers of the language. The storyteller was Maude Moon. My job, in part, was to translate the stories from hours of audio tapes. As noted by Wikipedia, his extensive unpublished field notes on Shoshoni are now being used for a language revitalization program. Absent Wick's work, these stories and the language used to tell the stories, would have been lost forever.

Here is another example from Utah Valley. Quoting again from Wikipedia,
Kate B. Carter (July 30, 1891 – September 8, 1976) was an editor, historian and long-time president ofDaughters of Utah Pioneers. Carter was born Catherine Vigdis Bearnson in Spanish Fork, Utah, in 1891. Her father, Finnbogi Bearnson, was from Iceland and her mother, Mary Jenson Bearnson, was from Denmark. Kate married Austin Carter in 1914. They had three children. 
Carter was a charter member of the Spanish Fork Daughters of Utah Pioneers before she moved to Salt Lake and became a member of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers there. 
In 1930, Carter was asked to prepare lessons for DUP meetings. This assignment began a four-decade-long career as a compiler and author of pioneer histories. Her writings were published in the twenty-volume collection, Our Pioneer Heritage, the twelve-volume collection Heart Throbs of the West, and six volumes of Treasures of Pioneer History.
It is my guess that if you have a "traditional" pioneer story about "your" ancestors, it was likely collected and codified by Kate Carter. Here are the citations to a very few of her books.

Carter, Kate B, and Daughters of Utah Pioneers. Heart Throbs of the West. Salt Lake City: Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, 1939.
———. Treasures of Pioneer History. Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1952.
Carter, Kate B, Daughters of Utah Pioneers, and Lesson Committee. Our Pioneer Heritage. Salt Lake City, Utah: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1958.
Carter, Kate B, Daughters of Utah Pioneers, and State Central Company. The Handcart Pioneers. Utah? Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Central Co., 1956.

If you want to get some idea of the extent of Kate Carter's influence on the pioneer history of Utah, you should take a second to look at her list of publications on Wikipedia.

The Memories section of the website is a marvelous forum for transmitting the stories of our ancestors. But we don't get the stories and the stories don't get preserved by denying or ignoring the existence of the genealogical elephant. Without the efforts of dedicated genealogists, historians, writers, anthropologists, both professional and amatuer, many of these stories would have been long lost.

If you really think that all genealogists think about is names and dates, you are one of the elephant's blind men. Why do I care? Because I spent half of my life gathering the stories, journals, diaries and documents about my family, only to be told that I am no longer needed. Let me ask the question again:

Where do the stories about our ancestors come from?


  1. It is the blind man and the elephant all over again with the elephant representing genealogy." Yes we all do different things when it comes to genealogy. I like research mostly myself. I'll never stop asking questions.

  2. The story of the blind men and the elephant represents a great analogy regarding the conclusions we draw about our ancestors. We are truly blind, since in most cases we were not present during their lives. We can only draw conclusions based on the records that they or others who were present left behind. If we fail to look at a multiplicity of these records, we have the potential to be as inaccurate as each individual blind man was in describing the elephant.