Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Watering My Family Tree

Since I am an amateur genealogist by choice and a perfectionist by nature, my life is full of complex ambiguities. Genealogy is as much an art as it is a science. In art, there is rarely a definitive resolution. And that drives the perfectionist in me crazy.

I was recently reminded of this when I was browsing some Internet genealogy sites and discovered a record for my late father. The birth date listed for him was several years off. This site’s policy (as is the case with most such sites) is that records cannot be corrected. The best you can do when you discover incorrect data is to post the correct data and then let succeeding generations sort it all out.

One such site reminded me to include my sources when posting such correctional data. My sources? He’s my dad, for crying out loud! Don’t you think I’d know when his birth date was? (The scientist within me calmed the nerves of the artist within me and cooler heads ultimately prevailed.)

Bad data isn’t the worst part of genealogical research. The hardest part is determining your limits. Thus, I have constructed the three most agonizing dilemmas that face me in my pursuit of ancestry:

How deep should I go?

Fortunately, there’s an easy answer to this: as deep as possible. My ultimate goal as a genealogist is to find the oldest possible ancestors. As long as they’re in my blood line, I’ll go backwards as far as I can to find my great-great-great-great-great whatever.

Unfortunately, the farther you go back, the messier it gets. Spellings are not always consistent, the handwriting in family Bibles is almost impossible to decipher, and census takers were generally undereducated and poorly paid.

In addition, a couple of hundred years ago, it seems like every male was named either William, or Henry, or Harry. (Including President William Henry Harrison, but I digress.) Just because you find a person with the same name as a great ancestor of yours, that doesn’t mean you’re related. Challenges like that keep the work interesting.

How wide should I go?

No clear answer on this one. I finally had to draw the line one time when I had the names of my third cousin’s ex-wife’s parents. Fully knowing that I might regret it some day, I decided not to include them in my family tree database. It’s not likely that I’m going to run into them or their descendants in the mall. Let their family build their own tree.

I could be wrong about that one, but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

When should I stop?

That’s easy. When people stop being born. And when people stop dying. When history stops living. And when the lion lays down with the lamb.

That’s the beauty of genealogy: It’s a living history. It keeps going and going. And its blessing keep giving and giving.

There are times when I’m working on a particular part of my family’s history when I’ll stop, take a breath, and step back to see what I’ve done. It puts things in perspective. It lets you know where you’re going by seeing where you’ve been. It makes you realize that everybody deserves a legacy, even if it’s just a birth date and a death date in a database.

Then, I get a phone call or an email. Somebody in my family has died. Or somebody has been born. Two people have been joined in marriage or split by a divorce. A new tombstone has been discovered in an old cemetery or a new obituary has been discovered in a yellow, tattered newspaper.

So I open up my database and enter the new information. Another legacy has been preserved. And my great-grandchildren will thank me for it.

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