Sunday, February 13, 2011

See, There Were These Three Brothers Who Were Stowaways, . . . I Even Googled it!

Stowaways? Really?
The next statement you’re about to read is a gross over-simplification, devoid of any shading or nuance, but it still veers to the truthy side, nonetheless.  Here goes:

There are “skin and bones” genealogy types and “flesh and blood” genealogy types.

The “flesh and blood” types are into reconstructing ancestral lives and families.  They try and turn the dry facts found in documents into real life stories. They’re concerned with context and with interpreting the reams of factual minutiae that pop up while doing a genealogical search. They’ll stick with a search for documentation until the people that they’re researching start to seem as real and alive as their living relatives.

For them (and me), it isn’t enough simply knowing that when William Vanstavern (one of the grandkids’ 5th great-grandfathers) made his will in Montgomery County, Virginia on 5 May 1859, he named his wife, his son and his three daughters as his heirs.  It's more than that. It’s also knowing that he added a short postscript in his own hand.  It read, “N.B.  I want no Executor nor anything to do with courts or magistrates about my affairs as I deem them all corrupt.”

On the other hand, the “skin and bones” types are all about collecting names, dates and an occasional isolated fact or two about as many ancestors as is humanly possible. They’re the folks who love entering their harvested data into large (mostly unsourced) databases and then publishing said databases on the internet just as fast as time permits. Visit any of the free genealogy forums or message boards and you’ll run into many of them, either soliciting or offering to exchange “data”.

My other pet peeve:  just because you think your ancestor deserves to have a middle initial, that is still not a good enough reason to create a Findagrave listing for him and give him one, especially when there's not a single extant document anywhere that shows him with one. Sheesh! 

Okay, I admit it; I spent part of yesterday reading the recent postings on some of the family and Virginia/ West Virginia county forums and message boards that I follow every now and again.  While the names of the posters change over time, the unsourced “facts” that get exchanged don’t. The number of Indian “princesses” perched like acorns in family trees in those parts is truly staggering.

Sadly, the idea that there possibly might (or might not) be “sources” somewhere out there in the real world for all this “evidence” that gets passed around on the ‘net seems to be an alien concept standing in the way of adding yet another generation of “ancestors” to the family tree.  Facts can be troublesome and looking stuff up in courthouse basements can be hard work.   

Can’t you just Google it? If not, what good is it?

Look, “skin and bones” types, I get it.  Genealogy is your hobby.  On the internet, it’s cheap.  You do it for fun, not for money.  That chart that traces your granddaddy back to the Grand Duke of Whatchamacallit in the 12th century looks great on your wall.  And I’m happy to hear that you’re going to submit yet another 500 word sketch of your pioneer family to the next incarnation of your ancestral county’s “mug book” ($60.00 if you pick it up from Thelma at the library…) because, after all, there still may be folks out there who haven’t heard the “three brothers came as stowaways on a ship to Philadelphia so they could fight in the Revolution because they loved liberty” story. Or was it because one of them was a poor farmer who married the village nobleman’s daughter? Whatever it was, it MUST be true because it’s all over the internet.  Besides, you Googled it.

Of course, while some of this stuff is amusing, much of it is downright frustrating. Why? Because it demonstrates that a huge number of people prefer to live an evidence-free existence these days.  It shows up in discussions dealing with science and medicine, with politics and education, and with history and genealogy.  Troublesome and contradictory facts can get in the way of a great point of view and screw things up royally.  Sometimes facts are nasty. It's best to avoid them when possible, and thus keep to your own private “no-spin” zone.

But surely, you say, how important can this all be?  After all, it’s just genealogy, just a hobby; it doesn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things.

Well, actually, it really DOES matter.  

If you are satisfied living in an evidence-free bubble with regard to your family history, you’ll likely be willing to do the same with history in general.  That world view will, in turn, spill over into your views on politics, which in turn will help form your view on exactly what should or should not be taught in schools and by whom.  Eventually, you’ll be quite content to give the benefit of the doubt to all kinds of scientific and medical quackery simply because there are lots of websites that say it’s all true. Besides, who has time to look this stuff up anymore?

Of course, this is nothing new; actually gathering and evaluating evidence has always been hard work.

Okay, enough of the rant for today.  I guess I got “garbage overload” from all the stuff I was reading yesterday.

Now, for your edification and amusement, here’s a “medical” ad that appeared in a Binghamton, NY city directory in 1921.  It’s in print, so it must be true, right? Isn’t that enough evidence?  

(Unfortunately, the good Doctor took his secret formulae to the grave with him)

No comments:

Post a Comment