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Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011 11:24 am

Honorable ancestors

Some pitfalls in doing family history research



Thomas Schwartz has been the Illinois State Historian since 1993. Asked how he got into the racket in a 2008 interview, Mr. Schwartz recalled that he grew up surrounded by an extended family whose members like to get together, eat, drink and tell stories. “History was easier for me,” he said, “because it was transmitted in the life stories of the people I loved.”

In this Mr. Schwartz is unusual. The current craze for family history research is not evidence that Americans are interested in the life stories of those close to them, but evidence that they are not. When did great-great-grandfather come to this country? Where did grandma meet her first husband? Was anybody from our family in the Civil War? Not all people can answer such questions, and many more never think to ask them.

Indeed (as anyone who has tried to assemble a family history will attest) people often disdain talking about even their own lives. The reluctance of World War II veterans to speak until prompted by impending death is well-known. One of my grandparents – tough as a soldier, and just as taciturn – never opened up about her hardscrabble girlhood on the farm. I had to guess why. Perhaps the humiliations she endured still rankled after 60 years.

The U.S. is a country to which many forward-looking people came to forget about the past and invent new lives, indeed new selves. In a nation of tomorrows, yesterdays don’t matter much. Why then is this generation poring over old census returns and marriage records? No prize for guessing: boomer narcissism. The essential question that animates today’s family researcher – “Who were they?” – usually begins when she begins to ask, “Who am I?” or, probably more common, “Why am I?”

Questions, I feel obliged to point out, they do not usually answer. Most family “histories” aren’t, having very little history in them. They are genealogies, family trees that focus (often obsessively) on the who and the when, not the where the why and the how. An old friend of mine worked for a time at the Sangamon Valley Collection. A genealogist walking through the door had the same effect on him that turning on the kitchen light has on cockroaches – he disappeared faster than the visitor could say, “I’m trying to find ….”

At best, genealogies are to the family history what the road map is to the Michelin guide. Genuine family histories – that is, an objective rendering of facts, scrupulously verified and placed in the context of broader social and economic realities of respective eras – are rare. More typical is Jacob Bunn: Legacy of an Illinois Industrial Pioneer. Mr. Bunn was of course the rootstock from which the Springfield Bunns bloomed, a man who in the latter 1800s had a finger in most of the tastier pies cooked up by local businessmen, from breweries and coal mines to foundries. He founded his own banking, wholesale and manufacturing firms. It was written by young Andrew T. Call, a relation, while he was a college student and published by him. Call has done his duty in honoring his illustrious ancestor, but the book’s tiresome evocations of its subject’s “vision, integrity and leadership” reminds one a little too persuasively of the lives of the saints.

There is more than one way to skin a dead relative, so to speak. The seeker in 1977 of the TV miniseries, “Roots: The Saga of an American family,” learned of his long-lost West African ancestors thanks to a griot, a member of the hereditary caste in those parts who were the keepers of the oral history of the tribe or village. That model – history through stories – is still cherished, especially among Americans with Southern roots.

A good example is Always of Home: A Southern Illinois Childhood, by Edgar Allen Imhoff. Another is Shirley Motley Portwood’s Tell Us a Story: An African American Family in the Heartland. (Both are from the Southern Illinois University Press.) Porter’s book is described by its publisher as “a colorful mosaic of African-American autobiography and family history set in Springfield, Ill., and in rural southern Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas from the 1920s through the 1950s.” It consists in the main of stories passed along by family members for a half-century.

Anyone who has done it, however, knows that the better a family history is, the less likely it is that everyone in the family will like it. An incident or a trait that strikes you as a mere foible, a trait that to you is a charming eccentricity, may be seen by some of your kin as sins be damned. (Family members born on the wrong side of the blanket, as the English used to say, pose especially delicate issues of disclosure.) Broadcast such tales expecting to get applause, and you are just as likely to get a fistful of potato salad right between the eyes at the next family reunion.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at


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