“The Historians Versus the Genealogists.” Really?

Here we go again with another round of "Historians vs. Genealogists." I usually roll my eyes at this recurring topic, but this time, I need to say something. 

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The Latest Argument

In his April 12, 2018 opinion piece for the New York Times Sunday Review, "The Historians Versus the Genealogists," John Sedgwick wrote about what he saw as the differences between historians and genealogists. He concludes that we need both, but I must disagree with nearly every point on the way to get there.

Sedgwick's new book, Blood Moon: An American Epic of War and Splendor in the Cherokee Nation, is about the rivalry between two Cherokee chiefs on the verge of the Trail of Tears. Sedgwick discovered during his research for the book that his relative Harriet Gold was part of the story. 

Sedgwick states that he has become "fairly obsessed" with his relative Harriet. That's something that a lot of genealogists can appreciate. But then he quickly adds:

"In my defense, she is a figure of genuine historical interest."

Oh really? I didn't know that a person had to be somehow connected to an epic American saga to be of "genuine historical interest." 

Sedgwick's Premise

Sedgwick's premise is two-faceted. The first is that historians do research and genealogists provide empathy. His opinion piece began with references to people taking DNA tests and using Ancestry to trace their history "back as far as they can" and makes a comment about finding you're related to George Washington's aunt (complete with a link to Ancestry's old tv commercial about that).

"Historians like me tend to scoff at these attempts."

I'm not sure which historians he's talking to, but Mr. Sedgwick would do well to talk to some different ones. Perhaps as a Harvard man, he should talk with Dr. Henry Louis Gates and learn about the impact genealogy has on understanding race. I would also highly suggest he read Helen F.M. Leary's monumental work, "Sally Hemings's children: A Genealogical Analysis of the Evidence" (National Genealogical Society Quarterly, vol. 89, No. 3, September 2001). I would also recommend contacting Dr. James Madison at Indiana University, who has extolled the virtues of genealogical research since at least 2005. 

Sedgwick's second premise is that genealogists only care about their own family. Beyond the initial jabs at those who find connections to famous people (or should that be "people of genuine historical interest"?), Sedgwick makes this claim:

"History and genealogy, after all, are two radically divergent takes on the past. The first says, 'This matters.' The second says, 'This matters to me.'"

Mr. Sedgwick, with all due respect, you are wrong. 

If genealogy is only "this matters to me," why did thousands of people volunteer to index the 1940 census? If genealogy is only "this matters to me," why do thousands of people continue to index records to be made freely available on FamilySearch.org?

If genealogy is only "this matters to me," why do people every day try to help adoptees understand their DNA results? If genealogy is only "this matters to me," why do people like Megan Smolenyak work so hard assisting the government to identify soldiers who are still unaccounted for from WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam?

If genealogy is only "this matters to me," why do people volunteer every day to help identify the unclaimed bodies at coroner's offices around the country and reunite them with family

You see, Mr. Sedgwick, history and genealogy are not "two radically divergent takes on the past." Genealogy is no longer focused on making connections with people of "genuine historical interest." (That was the prevailing mood up until the mid-1970s, as social history as a field grew and with the explosive popularity of "Roots." It is certainly no longer the case.) Genealogy now is about making connections to the past — all of it. When we make those connections, we not only understand our families better, we understand history better. We also come to know our current world better. 

Genealogists, like historians, look at the past and say, "This matters." 

Genealogists, like historians, look at the past and say, "This matters." 

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Is there a difference between historians and genealogists? This age-old argument keeps coming up. #genealogy #familyhistory #ancestry

77 thoughts on ““The Historians Versus the Genealogists.” Really?

  1. I ready that article and my eyes might have rolled into the back of my head. It may as well have been titled “It’s Not History Unless I Think It’s Interesting.” History isn’t just one story, it’s billions of stories running concurrently. Thank you for being the voice of reason.

  2. Since I started researching my “Family History” in my teens, I’ve been under the impression that by tracing my genealogy that made me (and my niece and cousin) one of the Family Historians.

  3. You took the words right out of my mouth! I am definitely a historian as well as a genealogy sleuth. Friends often ask me how I know so much “trivia”. I research cultural, social and historical aspects of the lives of ancestors. An example: One ancestor was a paper maker in Kent Co. England … thus my research into hand made paper and it’s demise due to industrialization processes in England. How better to “flesh out” the life of a distant relative. In the U.S.A. were your relatives living in a “colony,territory or state”? What was life like in 1770s vs 1850s. Culture, politics, natural disasters … all build a story around your genealogy sleuthing. I’ve never been driven to find an elusive “historically important” ancestor …. I look for the fabric of the lives and times all my ancestors in addition to their individual personal details. (55 yrs of sleuthing under my belt)

  4. Thank you Amy for saying what I wanted to and couldn’t! I was really put off when I read the part about his ancestor being “a figure of genuine historical interest”. It’s the same reaction I feel when someone asks me who my most interesting ancestor is and I answer honestly, “ALL of them.”

    I still don’t understand why there needs to be an “us vs. them” mentality about every subject these days. Imagine how much we can learn and solve if we all appreciated others strengths and worked together.

    • I think the “me vs. them” mentality is what is prevalent in our culture today. Just look at politics, sports, racial tension, many of the TV shows that pit people against each other. Society has lost sight of what it means to work together, to respect others, and (gasp) to help one another.

  5. As one who has spent many years compiling local information for others to use in their research, when I have no recent relatives in the area, I greatly appreciate your reply to Sedgwich. He needs to be educated. Thanks!

  6. You can’t do genealogy without history and you shouldn’t do history without genealogy. Both matter, whether you have a connection to someone famous or not. Now, excuse me while I go read more about Bacon’s Rebellion, partly because I think I may have ancestors involved in it, and partly because I like to learn about history.

  7. Amy, well said. You brought up many facts. To me this is about my history along with my family. I have found so many lost relatives I did not know existed. Bonds are formed with those new family members instantly. These people matter to me. To my family. They are all over the place and their lives were part of history.
    Thank you for addressing this. It is to bad that you could not issue a rebuttal to the New York Times on his article.

  8. OMG – wow, is he ever annoying. I have an MA in History and am an avid genealogist. I don’t care at ALL about connecting to “someone of historical interest”…and what matters to me also matters to others as far as history goes..the more genealogists/family historians learn about their ancestors and how they lived, and then write about it, the more others understand the past. Like when I found out my great-grandfather was chased down the street after trying to do his job as an auctioneer, which was to auction seized property from those who had opposed a new law in England…readers of my blog all learned about that and the feedback indicates they found it fascinating…

    History and genealogy are two sides of the same coin…

  9. I read this opinion piece and thought that he had never spoken with people who do genealogy. I have done quite a bit of historical research due to doing genealogy in order to understand the period in which my relatives lived. I do not have any famous relatives. Most of them were rather poor but that has opened my eyes to how difficult life was and what average people did to survive.
    I thought it was interesting that he said people did genealogy in order to determine what famous person they were related to and then he claimed a sort of famous person as a relative.
    Thank you for your opinion.

  10. The point I believe he’s making is flawed research of so many family genealogists. Mind you, I am not pointing fingers. Many fail to research ancestors in the context of history resulting in multiple errors in their work. This one small thing can make or break how one analyzes findings. I love your work and your passion. You would take this personally. I don’t think you should. I do hope others read and heed the battle cry. A genealogist IS a family “historian.” Time to dust off the history books and ensure all work is historically accurate (whether or not HE deems your kin historically significant).
    Thanks for coming to the defense of genealogists everywhere.

    • You write “The point I believe he’s making is flawed research of so many family genealogists.” What about “historians” who used “flawed [genealogical] research” to write their histories? Bear with me as I give you an example of how details about a family can be distorted and misrepresented. However interesting Brett Rushforth’s theories might be in Bonds of Alliance (2012), it’s when he deals with real people that he simply cannot handle reality. This is only one of many items I brought to the attention of the publishers:

      “In 2003, he even transformed a French minor nobleman and military captain into a farmer at Lachine, claiming Captain Guillaume de Lorimier’s slave [sic] “worked alongside Lorimier and his sons clearing, planting, and harvesting” before 1708.[1] One problem (and not the only one) with this apparent statement of fact is that the first of Lorimier’s sons had died by the age of six before this date; and, although his second son survived to marry in 1730, he would have been only three years old in 1708. So much for Captain de Lorimier “clearing, planting, and harvesting” alongside his sons and his “slave.”[2] Rushforth’s 2012 book repeats this fantasy: “By 1708 [Lorimier acquired] an adolescent he called [sic][3] Joseph. Because Joseph was several years older than the average Indian slave, he worked alongside Lorimier and his sons clearing, planting, and harvesting.”[4] Rushforth obviously paid no attention to the documentation I provided him about this error, first, in 2005, and again in 2006.”

      [1] Rushforth, Panis (2003), paragraph 56. De Lorimier’s servant is never identified as a slave, only as a Panis Indian. He married in the Catholic Church an English woman. She was also a servant who most likely had been taken prisoner in an Indian raid and was ransomed by the French. He does not call her “a slave.”

      [2] See the Dictionary of Canadian Biography online for Guillaume de Lorimier de La Rivière, born about 1655, known as seigneur des Bordes (Gâtinais, France), and a member of the “petite noblesse,” minor nobility.

      [3] Rushforth has the irritating habit of asserting that those who owned slaves “named” them. In fact, whether a name was suggested by an owner or someone else’s decision, including sometimes the baptized, Native Americans received European Christian first names at Baptism and are more likely to have been given the first name of one or both of their godparents. This is only one of the aspects of Catholicism in New France that escapes him. Although I explained this and several other details about the Roman Catholic Church to him, he nevertheless persists in repeating some of his misunderstandings in his 2012 book and adds a few new ones.

      [4] Rushforth, Bonds, 180.

      See also my review on the FCHSM web page in which I point out details descendants of the Chesne dit Labutte family (as well as relatives of other French-Canadians) might find distorted and outright wrong. Neither the author nor the publishers saw fit to correct anything when the paperback edition was published in 2013, not even after complimenting my research and saying that would be their intention.

      http://habitantheritage.org/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/Suzanne_-_Bonds_of_Alliance.1474401.pdf

  11. Genealogy is my retirement hobby. Every lineage I’ve researched (yes, researched) has become an entry-point for my exploration of the social & economic history of the worlds in which these folks lived. Almost all of them are “ordinary” folks going about ordinary lives – but it’s those ordinary lives and the larger contexts that are intriguing. Thanks so much for critiquing Sedgwick’s nonsense!

  12. I “hated” history as a child, and well into adulthood, until I realized that I had always loved a different kind of history: that of individuals living in the world (biographies) and history of groups of people and how they lived. What I hated was the fixation on battles and dates and other dry, dusty stuff that had never been brought to life for me the way biographies did. Once the notion of history as I had been taught was dispelled, I realized that I was indeed a historian, a social historian specializing in genealogy. Give me a book on the history of underwear in colonial America, and I’ll read it cover to cover in one sitting!

    My current fixation is on a black man who has a double headstone in the cemetery of my ancestors, but who was actually buried elsewhere (his wife was buried first). In 1913, when he was an invalid widower on a Civil War pension, some white men in town tried to challenge the right of several African American men to vote, including this man and even the pastor of the local AME Church. Moreover, the mention of the pastor was the only hint in the story that this was an effort to disenfranchise the black vote. There: history comes alive!

    • I loved history, but now I know that it was because I could score well due to having an above average memory. NOW, I love history because it’s real to me. It makes sense now!

    • Paula, I like you hated history during my childhood and formal education years. Only after doing family research for a few years did history actually come “alive” for me and now it fascinates me. Probably another reason for my dislike of history was the fact that it was presented from almost a singular view point. I am sure that I would have been more fascinated in my youth and young adulthood had the stories of the women in Hidden Figures and Code Breakers had also been discussed.

      How my ancestors lived their “dash” (lives) is the most fascinating part of my research. Learning more about history along the way is a side benefit for me.

      • I also hated my history classes. Nothing in history came alive for me until i was lucky enough to study in England twice during my years of college. There i was standing in history; walking by history. I couldn’t get enough! I came back to college and actually enrolled in a history class! My professors (Art & History) encouraged me to return to England and do 2 independent studies during that time. Oddly,though I have a lot of family from England, it was my friends who said we should research the origin of my family surname given to me as a first name. Again i was off on a hunt but this time with Genealogy. I now teach. Recently i combined a year of Art and genealogy together. The students and even the parents couldn’t get enough! As we discovered their families, the students suddenly wanted to know more about the history of the time they lived; the countries they came from; what were their jobs. One student came to me after school and said, “Tell me about the Civil War and why my uncle was in the 5th US Colored Cavalry.” Don’t ever tell me the history or genealogy can ever stand alone. They will always be intertwined.
        Amy, thank you for the great blog!

  13. I agree with you; the author’s perspective seems uninformed and misguided at best. The experiences of our ancestors comprise “history”; genealogy is about the history of ordinary people. I hated history in school; it seemed mostly to be memorizing dates of wars and names of regimes. I am fascinated by history now that I see it through the perspective of real people, my people. I have learned about the lives of my ancestors over the past several centuries, along with the historical events that shaped their lives.

  14. Thank you for sharing your insight and wisdom, Amy. I agree with you 100%. I don’t think one can separate genealogy from history and vice versa.

  15. Great post Amy! I completely agree with your final point and have had an idea niggling in the back of my brain for a couple years… that school curriculums NEED to develop a heavy focus on genealogy in order to help children see the relevance of and to inspire them to learn about history.

    • From what I understand, many schools are now doing that. They at least require students to do a family history as far back as they can. I think that is a great way to get them interested in history and genealogy.

  16. My go to reply to historians: “But as long as human minds are forgetful, so long will history contain errors” AA Graham. Well written Amy (as always)! I have to say, I found it amusing that he said “For a historian, such a leap of imagination amounts to malpractice.” I submitted an article to the Ohio Genealogical Society Quarterly that will be out later this year titled: “Zane’s Trace: A lesson in historical malpractice”!

  17. Ivory towers still have limitations in exposure and thought. Hopefully your comments will expand his horizons. Personally, I find that I must be even more exacting in my genealogical research. Finding multiple primary sources is an imperative. Genealogy bibs will stand up to any scholarly bib!

  18. I read his piece before reading your response (after reading your email). I think the title of his piece was unfortunate, because most of what he said was not so far off the mark as you make it sound.

    I have dealt with “genealogists” and “family historians” who are bound and determined to tie their family line to royalty, Jesus Christ and Adam!

    I am not painting genealogists in general with that brush, though. We do get excited when we find relatives that others have deemed “historically important,” but I think we find it even more gratifying to discover the real lives of our ancestors and realize that “history” may be missing the real stories. Life is never all about war and politics. Historians who don’t delve into the types of records genealogists regularly use are missing the true nuance of past lives.

    • This was my experience, too. The title was overly provocative. He was rather condescending, but by the end of the article he seemed to come around to a somewhat reasonable conclusion. Genealogy makes history come alive to many of us, and it seems to have done the same for him. Final sentence “This is the lesson of America: We are all family here.”

  19. Great blog post! Thank you for responding to this ill-informed writer. Finding pictures and stories about mty everyday family is fascinating to me. Helping someone else with discovering their family is just as exciting. And what about the research showing children do better in general when they know where they came from and the challenges their ancestors were able to overcome?

  20. As a child, “Social Studies” only slightly interested me. I remember in the 7th grade really digging in and doing a bang-up job of writing a report on the history of Lexington, Virginia, where we lived. I received an A+ for my efforts. I still have the set of old newspapers I bought from the local newspaper office for my main source of factual information. When I jumped into genealogy in my mid-thirties, I said many times,” I should have paid more attention in my social studies classes!” I am still saying that frequently! And I have learned a lot about US history in the many years I have been doing genealogy! So, thank you to the Mr. Sedgwicks of the world! for documenting history for us to use while researching our own families within the framework of history! Historians and genealogists should be partners working together! There should never be the attitude of historians versus genealogists!!!

  21. I got excited when I suddenly was able to link myself through a sideline to Martin Luther, but I was also excited when I found a dissertation about the industrial history in the second half of the 1800s of my county in Germany. When I read that, I nearly “heard” what my ancestors were talking about at the dinner table. And both things belong to my family. For me history and genealogy belong together, and when I can connect history to my family, history gets alive.

  22. Excellent rebuttal to Mr. Sedgwick’s premises! Genealogy is inextricably linked with history, not opposed to it. Mr. Sedgwick’s condescending attitude smacks of elitism. Who is he to determine the definition of “genuine historical interest”?

    Many of my relatives are just that, even if they had little impact on larger history. Mr. Sedgwick should take care how he defines “interest”, since without one of his ancestors (significant or not, in his view) he would not exist.

    I do not have a history degree, but I do have many years of experience researching my father’s experiences as a forced laborer in Germany during WWII, in an era when 40% of Americans don’t even know what Auschwitz is(!).
    He belonged to a more obscure group of victims, but his history is nonetheless important and needs to be told.

    History is context for genealogy and genealogy enriches history, as I am sure any historian who spends any time in archives reading personal correspondence for contemporary opinions about events would agree.

    Thank you for a thoughtful post.

  23. I was also a history major in college and that is probably why I love doing genealogy. Just wish I had started earlier. That the two are inextricably entwined was brought home to me in my search of German heritage. I had never studied that part of the world’s history, but had to do so to get a handle on what I was finding. While I agree with most of what you say and that he can be condescending at times, I do think he somewhat redeems himself at the end by showing the everday human side of history/genealogy, when he says:
    “Try to see and feel life as each of them did. We’ll never fully succeed, but the effort can help collapse time and make for a history we can all relate to. This is the lesson of America: We are all family here.”

  24. About 15 years ago, I commented to a historian-friend that genealogists were getting a warmer welcome at a local archive than they had in earlier years. She said, “I’m not surprised. The metrics show that more genealogists come in during a month than historians, and that’s how the organization justifies its budget.” So maybe Mr. Sedgwick’s remarks can be chalked up to sour grapes.

  25. Ken Burns brought the Civil War to our doorstep with the letters of Sullivan Ballou to his wife, Sarah. History is illuminated through genealogy. Bravo, Amy Johnson Crow!

  26. For me, genealogists research people, historians research events. Discovering kinfolk who died in battle makes me research the Battle of Gettysburg (35-year-old Cicero Brooks), submarine attacks on merchant vessels in 1942 (16-year-old Sam Spillers), and aerial reconnaissance over the Philippines late in WWII (21-year-old Henry Ray Willis). I’ll research Spanish Influenza to help learn about the impact on my grandmother’s family when two of her siblings died (Otis and Eva). An attack by Indians that killed my 4g-grandmother and her daughter and granddaughter (Blansett Morrison Willis and daughter Rebecca and Rebecca’s infant) makes me research the history of the Creek in Georgia. The 3g-grandfather (Jacob Henry Hoss) who was military governor of Rome, Georgia, until Sherman’s troops captured the town in ’63. The 2g-grandfather (William John Franklin Willis) who sheltered in a bombproof in his yard at the age of 14 as Sherman’s troops shelled Atlanta.

    I’ve got the famous ancestors, of course. Washington’s grandmother was my 9th great aunt, so I’ve got cousin George, too. My other 9th great aunt had a descendant who crossed the Atlantic in the other direction, and her descendant married into the Bowes Lyon family in Scotland, meaning I’m related to the modern British monarchy. And enough Virginia immigrants were descended from British royalty to give me links back to Charlemagne. That’s genealogy. History is knowing who those ancestors were and what they did–the killers and the kings.

  27. These kind of arguments are just like political arguments. No one cares what the other side has to say. Frankly, it’s all history of some sort of another, and getting stuck on labels such as historian, genealogist, or family historian is a waste of time, since no one listens to the “other” side. Amy you are right on with your response, and i almost “bit” on responding also, but decided to save my breath since he wouldn’t listen anyway.

  28. In refutation of Sedgewick’s insensitive as well as arrogant remark about genealogists looking for royals or the famous/infamous, I say hogwash!

    As an adoptee, I began searching fro anyone that might be related to me. I began a tree with one surname only-the only thing I could remember as an abandoned child of the mid -1940s. In 1982, when I was able to track down (literally) my own birth certificate with NAMES on it that were my family and not the adopters, I could slowly add people to my tree.
    Unlike Sedgwick asserts, I was looking for the family from whom I had been involuntarily estranged ca 1947-48. not as a relinquished newborn, but as a 2 plus year old with memory.

    Via history, paper, oral narratives and DNA I do indeed have royals, landed gentry, Emperors, Empresses, a founding father or two, a Hungarian countess, a well known poet, a scientist, a Supreme Court Justice, and a South American Indian-oh yes, and a well-known compose -not becase I went searching for them, but because they preceded me, some by millennia. And just perhaps, the best discovery was my, for now, great times infinity grandfather, a certain Ne-Ander-Thal whose name I shall probably never know.

    Sedgewick should be reminded that history is only another’s interpretation and perspective of an event or events … and that all history begins with oral narratives. Does he know the history of griots?

    As for genealogists, they need to realize that if they don’t know history, they will not be effective in telling in telling the stories of their ancestors.

    Tahnks for sharing, Amy.
    .

  29. Your last statements in the blog post are right to the point. I consider myself to be a historian, a genealogist, and a detective. I have discovered several ancestors “of genuine historical interest” not because their names grace the pages of a book, but because their tenacity and determination along with that of other such people were what made this great country and the world work. Kudos to you.

  30. I agree wholeheartedly with what you’ve said. When I started my journey in the mid 1980’s I noticed in most counties where I researched Genealogists and Historians thought of one another with little enthusiasm. I always thought this odd as I personally thought genealogy and history went together, hand in hand. My reasoning… history involves people and where the are people you will have historical events. My view is very simplistic but it is just that, my view. I’m very happy to see each side, genealogy and history, giving the other the recognition they both deserve.

  31. Amy, awesome post! I HOPE that you responded directly to the NYT with this. I do have to say however, that to some degree – surface – he cannot be blamed in thinking that genealogy is only about, or interesting if, one connects to a famous person. Not hard to see where he made that leap. With Ancestry’s “Are we Related” App and previous iterations of similar “gimmicks” and Find-a-Grave, initially started, as I understand it, to document those “famous” ones, which then Genealogist’s have been running with and yes adding their ordinary folk/kin since. Who Do You Think You Are, tends not to just follow the “ordinary” tree. – you know trees like most of ours. No, those that make the show depict those that descend from God down through Charlamagne . . . Dr. Gates’ show, Finding your Roots, indeed has a bit of a political bent to it. The shows featured are predominantly ones that speak to his political views about race and while this past season was better in presenting a more rounded view; generally his presentations have leaned more toward his views. And, they are historical in nature.

    I enjoy these programs just as many do, but I enjoy them, because as a genealogist I want to learn about archives, etc. that I may not have previously known of before; I want to learn what professional genealogist look for and how when presented with a road block or brick wall they “think outside the box” to overcome it. But, by and large most are watching the show because they want to see if they are related to someone FAMOUS, whether it be to “famous” person for whom the show is researching their family or they are wanting to know if they are related to someone “more famous” in the featured person’s tree? Otherwise, let’s admit it, the public – TV’s greatest critics – wouldn’t be watching.

    So I can understand how this Mr. Sedgwick could have formed his opinion. I’d argue that if we want this to change, that in addition to your well presented thoughts here, we need to encourage, ancestry, Dr. Gates and others not to focus on the “catchy” famous; royalty and “Indian princesses” to capture an audience, but rather to educate their target audience about how much fun it is to discover their Hookers, Crooks, and Kooks within the branches of their family tree!! Til then, I think this an up hill battle as ancestry and other genealogy related companies have bought into the only way to capture the demographic that they are after – the 20 somethings – they need to make it shiny; glossy; gimmicky and gamey and it must be fast paced; in this crowed no one wants to research, it is all about point and click, their attention span can’t stand the rigors of research.

  32. Thank you for saying what all genealogists know – we are every bit of historians as we are genealogists otherwise we would never get further than writing our names and our parents names on a pedigree chart. I entered the genealogy world in the 1960’s in England and not only did I have to battle historians, but also fellow genealogists – male, suit and tie, serious faces and tracing “worthwhile” ancestors who all seemed to have titles and owned country estates! What was this young girl doing wanting to research her agricultural labourers?!! Thankfully we have moved on from all of that, but there will always be dinosaurs out there.

  33. Great piece; thanks for posting. Many of the author’s premises were flawed — including the notion that history can somehow be objective. He doesn’t see his own key prejudice — that because his relative is female, she must not be important. It is natural to write and do research about the things that interest us. Being a relative is one reason to be interested; being a member of the same political party as the subject might be another. But because it’s always been men who have had the bully pulpit, only certain subjects have been deemed of history interest.

  34. I have a masters degree in history and I use those skills to do family tree research for myself and others. I really don’t see the difference in the process or skill set. I think I know what he was trying to say about empathy in that genealogy personalizes history and helps people connect with the big picture, and with other people. But I think that matters. And so what if people get a kick out of finding a famous relative? Personally I find the branch of my tree that is “famous” less interesting as a research subject because it is all documented to the point where the likelihood of finding something new is tiny. But I did buy a book about them. I just think he is a snob, which is a bit silly.

  35. Sedgwick’s article and your reply certainly have hit a nerve! And I love it!! In the last few years, I have started referring to myself as a “family historian” because I feel it more accurately describes my passion. Yes, my passion. And like so many others have expressed, I’m not much interested in figures of “genuine historical interest” and long ago ceased feeling compelled to trace my family back as far as I can go. What does interest me is the historical context in which my ordinary Irish ancestors were forced to leave their homeland. And what was it like for them to live through The Great Hunger? And on which boat did my Swedish great grandmother travel to “Nord Amerika”? And what was her journey like and how long did it take? And how did she feel when she was forced to leave her 1-year-old daughter behind, never to see her again? And how did my grandmother’s cousin die in a prisoner of war camp in Germany, just weeks before WWII ended? And how did my German great grandfather get from Denver to the Montana Territory in 1864? And what was it like living in an “upbuilding” mining town in 1878 with a 50-stamp-mill pounding night and day? And what is a stamp mill anyway?? And oh yes, I’m also in the process of researching the lives of 163 husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers who died in a tragic mining accident in Butte, Montana in 1917. Many were immigrants, many were single or never had children, and many are buried in unmarked graves. And they should never be forgotten. Never. None of these men are my ancestors . . . but I guess you can say “This matters to me.” And you can also say, “This matters.”

  36. In Australia for many years there has also been similar discussion about History versus Local History, Historians versus ‘Amateur Historians’ and then some years ago there were newspaper articles written by some historians critising historical novels (even when years of background research had been undertaken by the author). There seems to be a belief by some historians that they are the only ones capable of studying history. Therefore it was interesting to read this post.

  37. Pingback: This week’s crème de la crème — April 14, 2018 | Genealogy à la carte

  38. I agree Amy. There was a similar conversation taking place on facebook, in DearMYRTLE’s group. I want to link to one specific part of it (https://www.facebook.com/groups/DearMYRTLE/permalink/10160317350925374/?comment_id=10160320136970374&reply_comment_id=10160320187430374&comment_tracking=%7B%22tn%22%3A%22R6%22%7D) because Elizabeth Shown Mills shared a link with me to one of her articles explaining the rift between these two camps. It was very enlightening

  39. Amy, your piece is very well done and on point. I agree with everything you said, with one notable exception. You wrote “Genealogy is no longer focused on making connections with people of “genuine historical interest.” (That was the prevailing mood up until the mid-1970s, as social history as a field grew and with the explosive popularity of “Roots.” It is certainly no longer the case.)”

    I disagree. Interest in making connections to famous persons, whether they be Revolutionary War soldiers, Mayflower passengers, or British royalty, has certainly been a facet of genealogy for a long time. But I challenge your statement that this was the “prevailing mood” until the mid-1970s. As you know, there are many strong motives to connect to one’s ancestors, including intellectual curiosity about one’s roots and identity, affection for family and ancestral places/nations, and a desire to preserve a record of that past for future generations. Those motives have nothing to do with proving that one is a descendant of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins. Those motives are readily apparent in American genealogical literature going back to the publication of the first volume of the NEHGRegister in 1847. In my own family, I have ancestors or siblings of ancestors in several different lines, from as early as the 1600s, who recorded the family history for future generations. None of those efforts reflect a desire to connect to someone of historical interest. We need to do a better job of telling the history of our discipline; it is too often misrepresented.

    Otherwise, I loved your post.

    • Richard — thank you for the kind words. I didn’t mean to imply that everyone who sought their genealogy pre-1975 was seeking to connect with a famous or historical figure. (Indeed, genealogy is the most personal of historical research and everyone has their own reason for starting.) What I was attempting to point out was that prior to Roots and the shift in historical research to start to include more than the standard “great dead white men,” the prevailing sentiment was that “ordinary” people and “ordinary” families did not have “a family history.” My grandmother, although she was the keeper of the family Bible, photographs, and stories, would never have considered herself a family historian; it simply wasn’t something that working-class families did.

  40. I am a genealogist because of my interest in the history of everything, everyplace and all timelines. They go hand in hand.

  41. Thank you, Amy, for making these very fine points. For professing to be a scholar and a researcher, this man has clearly not researched what genealogy is today. I highly doubt he has ever studied an issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly! If he had, he would not have made such foolish claims. He apparently has probably never attended RootsTech to see the seriousness with which many genealogists take their research and strive to improve their methods. I have a college degree in history and taught it for over thirty years. My understanding of history has served me well in my pursuits. You just cannot divorce genealogy and history; they go hand in hand. I do not approach my research looking for someone famous with which to connect. I, on the other hand, look for how my familes fit in to their eras and how it affected what they did. I also taught geography and it is intensively interesting to see how geography affected what my ancestors did. So, genealogy research is so much more than a simple hunt for someone famous with which to connect. Thanks again, Amy, for calling out this very short-sighted view of genealogy.

  42. Bravo Bravo Bravo Bravo Bravo!!!!! Every person’s life contributes to history in some way, small though it may be. They partake in neighborhood life, town life, city life, and it all leads to the history of the world! It’s like the song “the leg bone’s connected to the hip bone…” etc. It all fits, it all must be there.

  43. I’ve always seen ‘family history’ as just showing history from a different perspective – just as ‘social’ and ‘local’ history does. However, that does require genealogists to do more than collect names. Indeed it is that fleshing out of our ancestors, by placing them in the context of time and place that brings both them, and history to life. Being able to read the words Eleanor Selves wrote to her brother Thomas, when he was wrongfully convicted for theft, tells you so much about life, and religion, in Victorian England:

    “I am happy to inform you we are all well as hope this will find you. We are likewise happy to hear you are more reconciled to your fate. Oh, my dear Brother, it is an afflicting circumstance, but may the Almighty over rule it for our good, may he give you patience and resignation to bear it as becometh a Christian.” (Petition File: The National Archives (TNA) – file reference: HO17/046/3576).

    Researching Thomas’ conviction and redemption opens so many avenues, from criminal justice and political governance, to community spirit and religion.

    We are just as much ‘people’ historians, as those that research the Tudors, or the Cherokee Nation!

  44. Amy, I think that you are absolutely right – history and genealogy are inseparable. Family historians are all about the business of making connections to events, people and places. As context is essential to history and genealogy, it is impossible to separate/isolate one discipline from the other. I recently completed a book which I think conclusively demonstrates this point. If you or your readers are interested, the book will be available to the public within the next two weeks. In the meantime, I think that this link demonstrates the point you are making: https://millerjonesaafb.blogspot.com/

  45. Pingback: Friday finds: Week 17 – 2018 | Norwegian Genealogy and then some

  46. I started my genealogical research only because I wanted to know more about the stories I had heard as a child. I am a story teller by nature but as I researched I found the facts that confirmed the basics of the story but also the many other historical facts that influenced the story. Now I am learning to present the stories with the facts for my family. I have also learned family stories because I found interesting facts and asked questions of the family. For me the two can never be separated no matter how you get started.

  47. In mentioning the volunteers, one big group is those who have cataloged graveyards for Findagrave.com. An invaluable resource for genealogists. And those that will hunt down a grave, and get a picture for a geographically distant person. All for the love of family- yours, mine and others. Truly stupendous folks. So much so that I have also volunteered…to pay it forward, so to speak.
    Pam Baker

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