Thursday, July 07, 2011

Genealogy, Mythology and Butter Churns

A wise friend, Tamura Jones, wrote an article titled Genealogy without Proof is Mythology, attempting to trace the origin of the phrase. No, I don't think the man is tilting at windmills. His study is a "type" for how we should conduct ourselves as genealogists -- attempting to find the source of information, rather than perpetuating a myth.

Tamura worked through his article's content, attempting to report occurrences of the phrase on the Internet, including time-qualified Google searches from 1994 to the present.  Because I know Tamura, I trust his citations and quotes are accurate. However as a responsible researcher, I should spot check his searches to see if they can be duplicated. (If there are discrepancies, I'd have to work through them, wouldn't I?) Tamura also contacted numerous individuals who may have personal knowledge of, among other things, the supposed first expression of the phrase "Genealogy without proof is Mythology", including Ol' Myrt here. He was seeking information about the supposed originator of the phrase.

As I write this now, it occurs to me to suggest Tamura look through PERSI (Periodical Source Index) to see if the phrase is found in genealogical publications that are part of the Allen County Public Library's extensive genealogy department magazine and journal collection, some of which date back to 1847 publication dates. This might bring additional light to the subject, but I digress.

Basically, Tamura reported his findings, leaving them for all to evaluate. Some may have additional insights not known at the time he published the article. One advantage of the Internet is "putting it out there" for others to peruse and evaluate, possibly inspiring collaboration.

Objectively reporting findings and "putting it out there" are precisely what genealogists and historians must do when nailing down the origin of any idea, thought, or "factoid" about a historical figure ~ in the family or otherwise. Sadly, few quick-fix genealogists do this and so myths are perpetuated.

Sometimes phrases become so main stream, that they are just accepted as universal facts. Take for example:
  • "The world isn't flat."
This first phrase may not have been written down in the ship's log by Christopher Columbus when he didn't fall of the supposed edge of the earth as he sailed far to the West of Spain, seeking a passage to the Far East. However, the prevailing thought in his part of the world about the world being flat was due to the limited scope of experience. Had he communicated with Norsemen who explored North America in earlier times, then Columbus and the Spanish Royalty's belief that the world was flat would have been shattered much earlier. As genealogists, our limited experience may shape our understanding of kinship relationships. As we expand our search to include a variety of surviving records, we may revise our kinship determinations.

A second example might be:
  • US President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas by Lee Harvey Oswald.
Setting aside the theories of some that it was all a conspiracy, as a general rule, the concept is so generally known, it isn't required to have a source citation in common writing. However, as those of us who remained glued to our television sets in the hours and days following the assassination and the subsequent state funeral in Washington, DC pass away, the "generally known" facts of the case will wither away to oblivion. Hence, we see the need for first-hand, eye witness accounts. As genealogists it is our task to record the information and stories about members of the current generations, interview older family members, and preserve well-labeled photos, personal letters, diaries and other heirlooms for future generations.


from WikiPedia
Sometimes in the attempt to make our work "readable", we fill our family histories with anecdotal "information" -- stories, if you will, about the events in our ancestors lives as they were told to us. It is important that we explain the source of those stories. For example:

"Mom liked to lick butter from the butter churn."

isn't nearly as informative as:

"Grandma Frances told us how her daughter, our mom, used to get 'lost' at about 3-4 years of age. She said you could be sure to find her out on the back porch sticking her finger in the butter churn, licking the residue from the morning's work."

Didn't take much to include the informant, and her relationship to our mom, now did it? And it sure explained who told the story (our mom certainly didn't!) and set the story in the context of time.

As always let's CONSIDER THE SOURCE and be sure to mention it in our work.

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt     :)
Your friend in genealogy.


  1. Thanks for the reminder, Myrt! I'll remember how you phrased your examples for my own research...they are perfect!

  2. This is not just about citing sources. It is about giving credit where credit is due.
    It is about a genealogical aphorism we all love, that has become part of our shared genealogical wisdom.
    It is about leading by example, by not just saying what to do, but by doing what you say when you say it.
    Using the aphorism without citing its source is so incongruent, so "do as I say, not as I do", that we just have to figure out who came up with it.

    - Tamura

  3. Thank you! This is a reminder I need to have pinned to my monitor.

  4. Myrtle,

    I was unable to open up the link to Tamara's article.

    Have you any suggestions or a better link?


  5. Dear Myrtle,

    I was unable to ope the link to the article entitled "Genealogy without Proof is Mythology."

    Have you another link or a suggestion on how to view the article?


  6. Hmmmm... the link is:

    and it is working for me using FireFox. Try it again, Mary.

  7. Scholars knew the earth was spherical since Classical Greece, and that view was widely accepted by the Late Middle Ages. That contemporaries of Columbus believed it was flat is a modern myth. In fact, Columbus thought he'd reached India because the prevailing estimate of the size of the earth was much smaller.