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Help tell it like it is, and was

by | Jul 17, 2016 | News

Laws, Ian Fleming’s villainous Goldfinger scoffed to James Bond, are merely “the crystallized prejudices of the community.”

That’s harsh, and not entirely accurate. But it makes the useful point that our code of laws, no matter what the credits and credentials of those who pen the statutes, reflects the quality of thought and effort invested in it by regular folk like the majority of us. The same is true of our history, which comes to us not only from professional historians but also from conscientious writers of historical fiction, history buffs, family genealogists and storytellers — some of whom skip back and forth across the line between what is merely unproven and that for which there’s no basis in reality. George Washington’s hatchet job on his father’s cherry tree. Daniel Boone’s great stature and supposed preference for coonskin caps. Ulysses Grant’s refusal to accept Robert E. Lee’s sword at Appomattox. All of it goes into the refiners’ fire.

Most of us, though, would be surprised to learn how easy it can be to make a lasting contribution to a community’s, state’s or nation’s account of itself.

Sometimes, a long-lost land grant or an obscure letter can alter the actual storyline. More often, something out of those brittle papers in the attic provides a name, perhaps a face, for someone who helped make a difference but was then lost in the shadows. And even someone writing from blind passion had no motive to lie about the distance to the nearest crossroads or the whereabouts of the smithy.

There’s at least a little value in almost everything. Don’t sell yourself short. Know the pitfalls, know some tricks of the trade, know That Other Thing, and have at it.

First, some pitfalls.

  • Almost everyone who dips a toe into the family gene pool dreams of discovering ancestors of royal or noble birth; but it happens so rarely that it’s a waste of time unless that’s the most important thing you can imagine. Connections to those who lived in the antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction eras, in contrast, are pervasive. And collectively, they’ve had a much more profound effect on the society in which we live.
  • County lines wiggled around a lot in the 19th century as sprawling and unwieldy colonial “precincts” were broken up. Bear that in mind as you go hunting for public records: Good idea, but are you in the right county? (Be prepared for disappointment, too. Many courthouses have records going back only as far as the most recent fire.)
  • Illiteracy was rampant back then. But even educated people were inconsistent in spelling both given names and surnames, including their own. Don’t be put off by different spellings (“Mc” vs. “Mac”) until you’ve checked more thoroughly.
  • Free blacks and American Indians were disenfranchised years before the war. Don’t look for them in voter rolls after 1835.
  • Genealogy often is, for the descendants of African slaves, exponentially harder than it is for whites. Slave cemeteries, where they can be found at all (usually just downhill from those of their masters), frequently defy identification, having originally been marked only with wooden planks. As for slave lists and bills of sale, planters had no reason to keep those after Sherman passed through North Carolina, totally devaluing the “resource.”

It isn’t all pitfalls, though.

  • Wherever wills survive, those made prior to 1865 might reveal who was bequeathed to whom.
  • Not infrequently, someone else will already have done part or all of the work you assign yourself. Where there are old cemeteries, even if there’s no longer a church on the site, someone nearby has made a concentrated study of those buried there. That tight focus can be invaluable.
  • As for wartime records — unit assignments, duty stations, promotions, medical leaves, desertions — all of that has changed fairly recently, for the better. Never mind poring over yellowed photos or reciting oral tradition; you probably are within 30 minutes of a library or museum with a fat set of authoritative volumes.
  • It takes some by surprise to learn that there was no great secret about what was going on back then. Slavery, slave revolts (or, more commonly, rumors of them), runaways, slave auctions, punishments… Much of it was, as they say, in all the papers. So read the newspapers of the day.
  • Read, also, those plentiful court records: birth and death certificates; land transactions; wills and land surveys; U.S. Census records; tax records, crop reports; pardons; public offices held in the postwar era.

That Other Thing: What separates the good from the better is motive. Whether you regard genealogy as the handmaiden of history or vice-versa, you’re at your best trying to help establish what actually happened — not what would make the neatest, tidiest, most gratifying story.

Oh: If a gravestone seems too worn to give up its secrets, try this: Squirt two cents’ worth of shaving cream across the inscription, then wipe it off with a two-dollar squeegee and take a photo. As with most research, small investments can yield big payoffs.

Keep ’em coming.

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