Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Comments on "The Family Tree, Pruned"

There's an article in the July 2007 issue of Smithsonian that is getting a lot of attention among professional genealogists. It's written by Richard Conniff and is entitled "The Family Tree, Pruned." The attention that is drawing is largely based on the examples the author utilizes to reach a conclusion that "genealogy is bunk." The author cites a quotation by Elizabeth Shown Mills regarding the genealogy business which many professionals immediately recognized as being out of context. The author seems to think that all genealogists are seeking royalty in their ancestry. I never expected to find any royal ancestors in my family tree. I still don't have confirmation of any because I'm focusing on American research until such a time that I can realistically do the travel required to adequately research my ancestors to the other side of the big pond using as many original resources as possible. While I'll admit it is kind of neat to be able to say that you are very distantly related to someone who is well-known, it's never been the goal of my research. I'm more interested in genealogy from the aspect that it brings history to life for me. The Salem Witch Trials are much more interesting to me now than they were when I was in school because I can now identify with my 8th great grand-aunt who was one of those convicted in 1692 but managed to escape death and lived until 1700. I can read the Scarlet Letter in a new light knowing that some scholars believe that Rev. Stephen Bachiler and one of his wives were the inspiration for Hawthorne's work. I think about what it was like for my ancestors who lived in the Boston area in 1635 and experienced the horrendous hurricane there. I learned more about the Civil War by finding a Union ancestor who served in an Alabama regiment than I'd learned all through my school years. I've also deconstructed a few family legends. For example, it was tradition in my mom's family that they were related to Zachary Taylor, the president. I discovered that while we were related to a Zachary Taylor, the brother of my great grandmother, we were not related to the president. What is interesting to me is the fact that our Zachary must have donated to women's suffrage because there is a signed form letter from Susan B. Anthony among the family's possessions. I'm less impressed by the letter's author than I am by learning about the cause in which he believed. I'm intrigued by the fact that some of my ancestors were aboard the same ship to America that Roger Williams was. I wonder how their time spent with him influenced them and occasionally find evidence that they may have been influenced to a greater extent that I'd first believed. I've learned historical facts from different regions because I've found ancestors in those places. A few years ago, I had never heard of Block Island, but now I can tell you quite a bit about it because I discovered one ancestor who was among its first settlers. The author also seemed to use the exception of the lady who was so obsessed by getting DNA evidence to support a conclusion that she staked out a fast-food restaurant to obtain a specimen. All of the DNA studies that I've seen require the consent of the person whose DNA is being tested. My brother volunteered to be tested. I would never dream of testing someone who was opposed to it no matter how vital I thought that person's testing was to a genealogical problem's resolution. While there are some folks out there who fit the stereotype found in this article, those with whom I come in contact at the national conferences subscribe to a higher standard in their efforts and will love their ancestors regardless of who they are and what they have done.

Genealogical research to me is not meaningless or bunk. I'd like to make one other observation from the article. Conniff commented on a study by scientists which came to the conclusion that there is a common ancestor for all persons between 2000 and 3500 years ago. BINGO! This is an argument for creation and the great flood of Genesis. Noah is that common ancestor because the only persons aboard were Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives.

Update - Michael John Neill on the topic.

Update 2 - Randy Seaver on the topic.

Update 3 - Genealogy Gifts has created a new T-shirt line in response to Conniff's article.

Update 4 - Bill West on the topic.

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