History or Genealogy?

+45 votes
First let me say that I have trouble distinguishing between providing historical data on a person, and genealogical data.

That said, I recently heard from a couple of people that they had been critiqued in the biographical write-ups for providing personal data.   Such as, "she was well known in the community for her work with animals" or "his nickname came from ........."  

My personal opinion is that humanizing people in their biographies is what makes doing genealogy interesting.   Just connecting the dots with data and sources seems dry.   But, hey, what do you think?
in The Tree House by Robin Lee G2G6 Pilot (768k points)

I am currently reading a fascinating novel in which one of the characters is Robert Jacob Gordon (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Jacob_Gordon), who was stationed with the Dutch Scottish Brigade (!) in the Dutch Cape Colony and commited suicide in 1795 when the British took over (or actually the English East India Company confiscated the assets of the Dutch Colony). The novel is new - title: 1795, and it is written in Afrikaans (being translated at this very moment I believe).

In 2010 a Historian in conjuction with the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, wrote a non-fiction work on this avid explorer (who shot the first Giraffe that modern Europeans layed eyes on); spinoff now is also this website of the Rijksmuseum: http://www.robertjacobgordon.nl/ - also see http://www.robertjacobgordon.nl/writings-and-drawings - the art, drawings and correspondence [in no less than 3 European languages] of Gordon were featured in a historic exhibit at the Rijksmuseum on it's relations with the former colony as well as current South Africa before and after the release of Nelson Mandela (see: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/good-hope).

Last thursday evening I had the privilege to be in the company of both historians - the writer of the novel and the author of the non-fiction (and a few others historians, philosophers, acedemics) and the evening was absolutely deligthful, the atmosphere electric with passionate discussion and different views on the Europe and the colonies of 250 years ago, also including the Greek views on democracy, what it meant for the 1776 in the US and a few years later for the French revolution, and ultimately the real-politik of Trump today.

Now this Gordon still has no profile yet on WikiTree I believe. I'll be doing that soon. Though the novel is wonderful in that it gives a sense of the times that he lived in and more of the context, the author insisted that the difference between his work and that of the other historian, lay in the footnotes. Narrative without footnotes (every fact must be validated) is pure fiction and has no place in genealogy I believe. Though without the personal touch, the read would be not as riveting.

Historical facts within a well written narrative (including footnotes) is in my view the way to go. It does not have to be as dry as Wikipedia; a more personal touch could make a more captivating read. The one needs not exclude the other. The only obstacle is that the data of (hundreds of) thousands of profiles are still being collated and structured, researched.

Creating narrative for mere narratives' sake would not be a wise thing to do, as it impedes the validatory process.

I love it when the lines between genealogy and history begin to blur. There are times where the genealogical record begins to dry up, and all you have left is the historical. You cannot imagine the glee an historian has when their relatives leap out of the pages of an historical biography.

Genealogy and History are two Fabrics of the Many Fabrics of Family History and The History of Families that Magnificently Weave Together.  

Genealogy is history but at a personal level. It often gives us an idea why or what is happening.

These Facebook sites which are "history" oriented and say no genealogy questions really don't understand that genealogy is part of family history and they go hand in hand with the bigger picture of history.

@ James - I do not agree with your generalistic view on "these" Facebook sites. The Facebook sites that I like to use (to corroborate data) are the sites that are coupled to genealogy (historical and also including where possible DNA research) projects and institutions such as https://www.newnetherlandinstitute.org/ and Delia Robertson's The First Fifty Years Project. http://www.e-family.co.za/ffy/. They understand perfectly well that genealogy is part of family history and go hand in hand with the bigger picture of history (I have in the past even corrected some research findings with data algorithmically generated from WikiTree ... and it was gratefully accepted by learned historians).

The example above (the novel I was speaking of that this Gordon is a character in), is about the life and events in the main character's lifetime; he has a profile on WikiTree: Baron Willem Ferdinand van Rheede van Oudshoorn (1755 - 1822) - I spent two hours restructuring the bio to make sense of the basics, and what narrative there is now is in 3 languages and sorted under headings as facts or "bodies" of text that were GEDCOM (given a tweak or two). Not ideal, but a start.

The bio is now ready for further enhancement (meaning careful structuring into a more coherent and cohesive integral body of narrative, whilst still keeping to the [inline, named] referencing system. The profile has been primarily validated with a baptism record, and has therefore been locked down. It therefore has the template {{Dutch_Cape_Colony}} and the [[Category:Cape of Good Hope Ready]] (which means the profile is now ready for further validation with well cited & referenced marital records, death records etc.). There are still some issues (with the children - from collating the data of the various GEDCOM and manual duplicates, it is not clear who three of them are). Further research is still needed.

Now the novel (written by a South African historian who has also worked internationally with Dutch Archives, collaborating on international websites sharing databases and other fora), gives through it's genre (fiction) a much more personal account of the main character, that we might relate to. Such as that William was very unhappy in his second marriage, that he had filed for divorce, that he and his wife were living separately (just one interesting "fact" out of hundreds of others). This is not in the biography yet. Also - there are many clues in the novel to what certain occupations (time-space related) 250 years ago exactly entailed (such as "sherriff" or "bailiff") and how people's lives were different from now ... for example what their stressors were and which obstacles they were facing daily.

WikiTree in my opinion rocks because it has the potential to combine the genealogical aspect with the historical facts, and both are personal in the life and times of individual people.

The key to it's success in my humble opinion lies in the coherent validating structuring of the narrative of every single bio, in such a way that the narratives are not fiction, but they might contain those elements that often we only read about in fiction, and that everyone who contributes with integrity, is acknowledged. As they say - real life can be stranger than fiction many times.

Loads of work in progress ...:-)

Philip, glad you have not run across any of the experiences I have had or viewed. Guess I have joined the wrong groups.  As I said genealogy is indeed a form of history and the more personal experiences given for a person the better.
But now what I'm wondering is, was he really unhappy in his marriage, or did the novelist just decide he needed to make his character more interesting to a wider audience, with an eye on TV or movie rights?

He is a historian - with many, many years archival work behind him. Where there is smoke, there is fire. The evidence will be in the archives. As I said, this is a well known historian (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dan_Sleigh) who clearly recognizes when he is busy with facts and when with fiction. I was there when he was interviewed. He destinctly said "... whilst the facts support ... the author [in the third person] believes". This was in relation to the context of a question on the character "Gordon" as to the real person (his character; the possible reasons for his suicide). This is called creative freedom (licence).

The author is definitely not interested in creating fiction merely to appeal to a wider audience with an eye on TV or movie rights; he would be [as I am] appalled by such a presumptive cynical assumption. I have the greatest respect for him and wish him well; he might not live long enough to see a movie being made, if at all.

Citing (from LinkedIn) Dr Ian Macdonald Chairman at Register of Qualified Genealogists

"Limits to evidence. The novelist, Hilary Mantel has expressed this beautifully in today's Guardian Review section:

"Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that."

It is from her upcoming Reith Lectures on BBC 4."

Nice Philip, I enjoyed that, thank you for sharing.
The question was generic really.  One writer sticks close to reality, the next one takes liberties.

"The author believes" is especially dangerous, because the next one disagrees.  As every lawyer knows, for every possible opinion, there's an expert witness who'll testify to it.
But on the other point, I do find I'm getting increasingly wary of stating anything as a simple fact, simply because there's a record to that effect.
Then why argue to that effect, when everything is just a point of view depending where one's proverbial tree is growing on the hill or in the valley? Anyhow, I'm closing shop for today. Thanks Robin for this food for thought feed!

20 Answers

+30 votes
Best answer
Part of genealogy is getting to know the person, in my opinion. A profile that illustrates someone's life and personality isn't just more interesting, it's also less likely to be part of a bad merge!
by Paula J G2G6 Pilot (259k points)
selected by Living Barnes
+35 votes
Go for the story :)
by Fred Blair G2G6 Mach 1 (14.6k points)
+38 votes
I like the personal touch myself, makes the person come alive in my mind, gives them personality etc; makes the reader want to know more. I think there's plenty of room for BOTH in the biography section!
by Dorothy Barry G2G Astronaut (2.6m points)
+31 votes
Both can be presented in a bio. Without the personal touches, it's kind of flat and boring.
by Natalie Trott G2G Astronaut (1.1m points)
+34 votes
A biography with only data/sources would be like a garden with no flowers.
by Rubén Hernández G2G6 Pilot (771k points)
+29 votes

And we do not want to forget the source for  "she was well known in the community for her work with animals" <ref> Source </ref>
by Philip Smith G2G6 Pilot (315k points)
I'm going to need interviews with neighbors as proof.  I'm just saying.
How about a newspaper article where she was interviewed?
The sources for comments like these tend to be obituaries. We take it for granted that the family knew what it was talking about when it gave those 'facts' to the newspapers. Usually they are right. Sometimes wrong. But still good sources.
+24 votes
I also agree with the others.  Personal data makes the individual more real. I also sometimes add contemporary events to the bio.  Did your ancestor make a move in 1816?  Hmmm . . . maybe because of the year with no summer.
by Robert Haviland G2G3 (3.2k points)
+26 votes
I agree with what the others have said, the raw data is the skeleton, and the stories, anecdotes, snippets of life, are the flesh that bring the dry bones to life. You can't have one without the other.

For example, I was recently doing some work on my step-mother's branch and I discovered that two generations worked at the Carron Iron Works in Scotland at the end of the 19th Century. One was a foundaryman and the other a bath enameler (they were famous for their cast iron bath tubs). I was able to research the company and find out what conditions were like for them and imagine what it was like for father and son to go to work together every day.
by Susie MacLeod G2G6 Pilot (263k points)
+23 votes
I've encountered a few WikiTree contributors who had somehow formed the misconception that they were expected to emulate the "writing style" they had seen in numerous computer-generated profiles they saw in WikiTree. I'd like to see lots more interesting personal profiles like the ones Robin describes, so fewer folks will get the wrong impression...
by Ellen Smith G2G Astronaut (1.4m points)
+22 votes
I am like you. I try to make the biographies sound as human as possible. I had an uncle who friends said would "do anything for anyone". So I put that in his biography.

My grandma fell off a friend's bike and ended up with a lifelong scar on her knee. I thought it was interesting, so it's in her biography.

Genealogy is more than just facts and data. It's a way of remembering our ancestors.

My mom's biography is long and while it's private now (she's living), it includes stuff I would want future generations to know. Things like how she acted as an advocate for her patients in her job as a nurse.

I always say the more you can personalize it, the better.
by Jourdi Cleghorn G2G6 Mach 2 (29.8k points)
+15 votes
I can't write fiction; I can only write non-fiction. I can't lie, and to me, fiction is lying.  So I would never consider including anything in a biography which I couldn't substantiate with a source.  If I know personal things, I include them.  But for 99.9% of everyone I'm researching, I have no personal details to add.
by J. Crook G2G6 Pilot (210k points)
No one is suggesting there be facts without sources. We are just saying that there are interesting facts that extend beyond relationship names and event dates.
+17 votes
I recently had a discussion with my English major daughter (she is studying creative writing).  We are reading a book called Boys in the Boat.  It is a historical novel about 9 young men leading up to a rowing competition during the 1936 Olympics.  I raised the idea that the book reads as fiction rather than nonfiction, so rather as creative writing than historical biography. And I wondered how true it was. It is a historically accurate story written in a creative way.  She informed me that this style of writing earns the genre of creative nonfiction, or true stories told well.

From a genealogical sourcing point of view, the book has problems, because sourcing every statement would ruin the reading.  Yet the story is true and interesting and actual source information was used to tell the story.

So, I suppose then the question comes down to intent.  From a strict genealogical perspective, the bare essence is to prove lineage.  Lately, I have taken to using the terminology that Robert Charles Anderson uses, "Genealogically Defined".  Essentially, providing sources for Parents, Spouses, and Children.  Once defined, we have met the requirements and can move on to the next subject. But in our exploratory exercises, we learn much about the context of a person’s life and this informs us on who they were and can provide great clues as to finding more detail.

But is WikiTree just an encyclopedia, statements of fact and properly sourced?  Perhaps it is just a family tree site, a place for people to share their ancestry with others? Do we lose credibility or usefulness if we allow creative nonfiction? Is that a problem?  How so?

Now I could get an encyclopedia of the Olympics and source the names of the young men who competed in the 1936 Olympic Rowing team and footnote the historical significance of their accomplishment during the Nazi era, but then I would miss the wonderful opportunity to read a "True story told well."
by Michael Stills G2G6 Pilot (492k points)
Well stated description of the situation, and so the question becomes "who are we"....a genealogical documentation site, or a family tree that includes "stories"
There are stories and stories.  True stories, fine.  Anecdotes are also fun.

But I was reading a Life of Daniel Boone.  There's a tale of a fight with a schoolteacher.  And a tale of how the teenage Daniel used to go round to William Bryan's house to chat up his daughter Rebecca.  Only happened in the writer's imagination.  So i've had an entertaining read, but I haven't learnt anything about Boone.
And with Daniel Boone in particular, there are true tales about a mythological Daniel.  Where in these mythological tales belie an underlying truth as to how the true Daniel was viewed by peers and the people of the time. And then by later generations.

Thus what is shared on a profile needs appropriate context and attribution.
George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and not tell lies for example.
The fables that relate the underlying truths.  But sometimes the underlying truths aren't true.

Weems set out to show Washington as a saint.  If he couldn't find stuff, he made stuff up.  Maybe harmless, if Washington was really a saint, but was he?

Creative writers are always making a point you can get.  They make up heroic stuff about their heroes, or  occasionally evil stuff about their villains.  They don't do enigmatic, though real people are often a puzzle.
Too true and that's no lie.
+12 votes
I have very little personal information for a lot of people I write profiles about. Having extremely good sources from military records and newspapers, I get a glimpse of the real person. Sometimes, there are all sorts of subtle clues, even from wills about what they valued. Where I can, I do try to create more than a list of dates and places. I don't think my bios are "creative non-fiction", though I do have enough to write a really good novel on one couple.
by Fiona McMichael G2G6 Pilot (191k points)
+19 votes
I think Robin's question was about including sourced biographical facts that aren't strictly genealogical.  I never thought there was any objection to that.

The historian's job is to look at the records and draw the inferences.  In England, History of Parliament (though very patchy) is often a good example of how a (very partial) sketch of a life can be extracted from a few cryptic records.  It calls for a comprehensive knowledge of the context - the events and issues of the day, and what the subject's relatives and friends were up to.

If there's enough material, a biographer is usually expected to draw some conclusions about the subject's character.  We want to know what made high-achievers tick.  Were they all-round superpersons, or were they unscrupulous, grim, or just lucky?

Not all of that can be sourced.  Many things are supposed or "seems to me".  You can cite other people's supposings and opinions, but they don't become facts.  Sometimes they're obviously biased.

But a line is crossed when people get creative, ie make stuff up.  The historical novel is literature not history.  It's a valid literary form, and much more popular than real history.  Fine.  The trouble starts when people confuse it with history.
by Living Horace G2G6 Pilot (575k points)
+14 votes
I learned in an Archaeology class that "archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing".

I believe  - genealogy is history or it is nothing.  Our ancestors are more than dates in the strata of time, they were people with stories.
by Kristina Adams G2G6 Pilot (277k points)
+9 votes
Genealogy is tracing family connections. That is it.

Seth begat Simon who begat Eric who begat Matilda who begat Gozilla who begat Kong and Rhodan and Mothra and . . . . er . . .uhm, ahem . . . sorry, went a bit astray there.  ;-)

As just about everyone has said in their own ways, if we limit what we add to the tree to just the begatting, it'll become an awfully boring site. Add the personal stories . . . add life!
by John Beardsley G2G6 Mach 4 (41.0k points)
+5 votes
Excellent question, thank you for beginning the dialogue!  For me one of the greatest qualities of Wikitree is its emphasis on sourcing, facts and confirmed relationships. But as I read through profiles it's the wonderful, sourced biographies that brings an individual to life for those few minutes reading about them. When it happens to be a great grandfather or grandmother or even a cousin I'm reading about, the world opens up and I feel connected to this ancestor. Those few minutes are priceless and I instantly feel connect to family in new ways. I better see my place in history and an understanding of the world before me. I hope we can continue to add honest, factual and sourced bios, ones that let us glimpse into the past.
by Cynthia Rushing G2G6 Mach 3 (33.9k points)
+2 votes
Have the genealogy in the profile and mention the historical event which is detailed in a free space page. Since many interesting family events relate to many individuals you can tell the story once and then add a link to that page from all the profiles of the people mentioned. You can have both.
by Pat Credit G2G6 Pilot (167k points)
edited by Pat Credit
+5 votes
I recently gave a talk to a genealogy group on Storytelling and Genealogy. My message was to capture the world and local events and times that conditioned who the person was. I had some wonderful examples from my grandfather's lifelong journal, that described electrifying his house, installing the first telephone, buying his first car to replace his horse and buggy, the impact of World War I on the family and lots more. Even without the details like these, the history and changing technology of the times can enrich the tale to be told. Learn as much as you can about the period you are documenting and what life was like then. Don't invent history, but use it.
by Walter Howe G2G6 Mach 1 (14.9k points)
+5 votes
Why do we have to choose one over the other?  And, I can't tell you how many times little random "personal" fact has actually ended up being a clue that led to a genealogical breakthrough.  Sometimes we have to look in unexpected places to piece the story together.
by M Cole G2G6 Mach 5 (57.8k points)

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