Remembering Mammaw

While many of us earnestly research and write of ancestors long buried, the family history writer can leave a legacy of stories to future generations through memoirs and oral history woven among the dry facts of name, place and time. Years ago, I began my work as a genealogist. However, it was soon apparent that I desired more depth of my family’s history from my efforts. So my research evolved into the work of a family historian.

My experience at ancestral family research has been a challenge. My remote ancestors left few records detailing their lives. Only those born in the 20th century obtained literacy. One of my ancestral lines eschewed the broader community of city or town. They preferred, it seems to remain isolated along the Blue Ridge Mountains of the western Carolinas, where the outside world rarely ventured. I can use generalities from circumstantial evidence and social histories of the region in order to imagine the content of the daily lives of these ancestors, but I cannot know it. Thus, their stories are imbued with uncertainty and disclaimers.

However, from my long interest in oral history and its methodologies, I recognize that I can leave to my descendants a first person account of their ancestors as told in the ancestor’s own voice or the voice of an eyewitness. So over the past several years, I have collected narratives from my living generations. Slowly, I hope to compile these accounts into a family’s journey through generations. I do this because I discovered during the process of family oral history research what it means for me to be the person that I am. I would like to teach my children how to understand themselves through their origins.

Not all such accounts, whether biographies or memoirs, are easy for me to write. Facts are easy enough to collect, but the interpretation that weaves these facts coherently into an understanding of events are difficult and sometimes painful. The story about my maternal grandmother is one example. So much of her life was so closely connected with the latter part of my mother’s life. It was difficult to write about my mom as a major character in Mammaw’s story. Each time I would write “Mother” or “Mom” in the draft, I could feel grief surface and my objectivity as an historian dissolve into tears. When I began using my mom’s given name, however, the one that my grandmother gave her, I was able to distance myself enough to allow Mammaw’s voice to more clearly come through. It helped enormously to examine that period from someone else’s perspective. It added dimension to my knowledge and understanding of two women who were so prominent in my life.

An earlier version of Mammaw’s story was originally published in The Dallas Journal (2007).

I have been lecturing recently on the topic of “Oral History for the Genealogist.” When I get the opportunity, I like to ask my audience to give me their definition for “oral history.” I explain that lexicographers (dictionary compilers) generally create definitions from how the word is used in speech and writing. So, I tell the audience, they either can offer up a dictionary-like definition or give me an example of a genealogist who, like themselves, engage in “family oral history.” In social science research, this kind of definition is called an operational definition. Whether or not formally stated (such as in my little exercise), operational definitions greatly influence how we interpret our sources and our data. Continue Reading »

Maximizing Research & Time at the Library

The strategy recommended in the above link is a 5-step process. It parallels, in concept, the strategy used by professional researchers whose expertise focuses around a specific area of knowledge, whether it is in history or science.

In my last essay[1,2], I mentioned that I wanted to parse the forms of sources that we, as family historians, may encounter in our research. I will do that, but first wanted to write a small “side bar” piece so that I do not seem to wander too far afield of the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Since that essay, I have been reading—again—much that has been written by such notable experts as Elizabeth Shown Mills and Christine Rose. I also read the musings of other researchers, who are examining both the standards with their own research to determine how well their work measures against that standard. Such studies can be quite informative. It pays to re-search for answers to one’s questions. Once is not enough.

In her book, Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case,[3] Christine Rose did not place “reliable sources” in that first step, although she references the BCG Standards Manual [4]as her source of the five steps of GPS. It is a small book and one that I recommend having in one’s library. The BCG Manual, necessarily, is formal in its language. Rose’s book is more—how shall I say—down to earth. To use an analogy, the BCG Manual is like a topographical map, whereas Building a Solid Case is more like a compass that orients you towards North. The two books, combined, accomplish more than either can alone, in my opinion.

Without using that troubling term “reliable sources,” Rose takes the reader directly into focusing upon the qualities of evidence as found in any source: direct/indirect; original/derivative; primary/secondary. It is, in essence these qualities that we are assessing as we attempt to establish a source as reliable. There is a fourth set of qualities that, as historians, we should attend to as well. This is the technical assessment that I mentioned in my last essay on GPS and the one I hope to more clearly address in my next essay.



[1] Sometimes my meditations are found wanting. I want to modify a statement made in my last posting. The statement read: “Once we have addressed the more universal questions of technical analysis…” The phrase should have been “Once we have addressed the broader questions of technical analysis…” I corrected it in that posting.

[2] “Genealogical Proof Standards and Reliable Source (Part 2), URL: https://sfgayle.wordpress.com/2008/03/27/genealogical-proof-standard-and-reliable-sources-part-2/.

[3] Rose, Christine. Genealogical Proof Standard: Building a Solid Case. 2d. ed. (San José, California: CR Publications, 2005).

[4] The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual. (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing Co., 2000).


Once in a cycle the comet
Doubles its lonesome track.
Enriched with the tears of a thousand years,
Aeschylus wanders back.

—John G. Neihardt [1]

When my mother died in 1991, the director at the mortuary asked me how did she like to wear her hair and did she wear lipstick or eye shadow? Her remains were being prepared for burial, but he spoke of her as if she still existed, as if she still lived. In Mexico and among many Native American tribes, there is the belief that you experience death three times. The first death occurs when your spirit departs the body; the second, when your body returns to Mother earth. The final death occurs only when there is no one who still remembers your name. It is only after the third death that are you truly dead. My mother lives still.

Sometimes, in a quiet moment among microfilm and dusty records, I will sense ghostly encounters with ancestors. Something fleeting and formless will flutter from a page. A voice, whose tone and tenor is too effaced to be clearly heard, will echo across time. I wonder what the shamans would say about my endeavors as a family historian. By discovering the name of an unknown parent, can I resurrect those who have experienced that third death? I suspect that the answer is ‘no’ because my efforts are formed from fragments of a life, not memory of it. Still, there is this vague disquiet that comes with the prolonged study of a life long gone from human memory. I have never asked other genealogists if they, too, detect apparitions hovering at the periphery of their research. Perhaps to do so is to seem unscholarly, non-objective in one’s work.

Loren Eisley encountered a similar cadre of apparitions. He often wrote about them. As a paleontologist, he understood that the essence of being human is not contained in a solitary skull vault. He described it as shadows dancing on the walls of a cave, a word uttered by the fire. This essence eludes us and is gone when we come with spades upon the cold ashes of the campfire four hundred thousand years hence. Eisley also believed that it is the creation of the written word, giving birth to history, that has enabled us to survive as a species. Perhaps he is right. Through myth, then through written history, we have extended human memory beyond the individual lifetime. Perhaps, we can hold back that final death with our re-search for forgotten family memories.

Like the comet of Neihardt’s poem, my mother, indeed all my loved ones who have passed, returns periodically in memories of conversations, in photographs, in letters and documents. Each cycle of recalling those past events denotes an opportunity to discover something new. Sometimes about them; sometimes about me. Eisley believed that this was the real process of scientific research, seeing ourselves as part of the scientific question.

I began this blog in July 2007, a mere nine months ago, not sure that anyone would read it. But, apparently, some people have because, as of today, the stats at WordPress, report that people have stopped by more than 5,000 times since last year. Another statistic informs me that some of you have found what is posted here promising enough to add this blog to a reader list or a feed. Other than a few comments left here, none of these numbers tell me if you like what you read. Nor do they tell me who you are, but I thank you for visiting. I hope that you will come by again.


  1. Neihardt (1881-1973), whose quote appears above, may be unfamiliar to many of you. Although he is better known as a poet, he was, in fact, a historian who wrote about the American Midwest and its native inhabitants. He published his research in a variety of genres, including epic poetry.

With other projects and priorities now behind me, I can continue this series of meditations on GPS.

Restating Step 1 of the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS), we are to

conduct a reasonably exhaustive search in reliable sources for all information that is or may be pertinent to the identity, relationship, event, or situation in question. 1

It seems worth the effort to take a few lines to discuss something about sources in general. While it may seem obvious, I want to start this essay at the broadest level by asking the question: What are sources? More specifically: What are historical sources? Note that I don’t ask about reliable sources just yet. We need to lay some groundwork, first.

Numerous authors have given us a variety of perspectives on the term, historical sources. However, it seems to me that Howell and Prevenier offer the most acceptable definition for the family historian.

Sources are artifacts that have been left by the past. They exist either as relics, what we might call “remains,” or as the testimonies of witnesses to the past. 2

What makes this definition useful for the family historian is that it is simple, yet comprehensive. Anything from the past that bears the trace of a human fingerprint or footprint upon it, qualifies as an historical source. To a skilled archeologist, the charred remains of a trash pile can reveal as much about daily life in the 18th century as a woman’s diary. Symbols, in contrast to words, carved onto a grave marker can suggest a relationship, an occupation, or a place of origin. As genealogists, too often, we tend to focus upon specific features of specific types of source. This tendency, while illuminating certain aspects of our research, can hinder our efforts to be reasonably exhaustive.

Evaluating for reliability involves both technical analysis and critical analysis of the artifact, with the technical analysis being necessarily performed first. For technical analysis, we can borrow tools long developed and utilized by historians. Among some of the more common tools are: paleography, linguistics, heraldry, epigraphy, and diplomatics. Using such tools, first, we want to locate the artifact in time and place. When and where was it created? In what social setting was it created and by whom was it created? What similarities does it share with other artifacts created during the time and place, by the same creator?

Secondly , we want to make the language of the artifact comprehensible. What linguistic features does the artifact possess? Is the language foreign, technical, specialized, or archaic? If the language is foreign, we will need to translate it (make it comprehensible). If the handwriting is archaic or otherwise difficult to read, we will need to transcribe it. If the language is temporal or technical, we will need to understand the terminology within the social context that it was written.3

Finally, as part of our technical evaluation, we want to check the artifact for its authenticity. 4 While the auction price of a document, containing genealogical interest, may not hang in the balance, we still want to examine the artifact for how genuine and accurate it is. Among the questions we want to ask of each artifact are: What was the motivation for creating that artifact? Was the creator in a position to accurately render the information contained within or on it? What social contexts might have ensured or hindered an accurate recording?

Once we have addressed the more universal broader questions of technical analysis, there are questions that are relevant to the form of artifact. From the foregoing comprehensive definition of historical sources, we can delineate artifacts into three forms: written, oral, and relic. Each form possesses traits that can be evaluated for strengths and weaknesses that affect that artifact’s reliability as a source. Any given artifact may be classified into multiple forms. For example, a grave marker, which contains the name of the deceased, can be classified as a written source. However, when you consider the location of the marker (the cemetery wherein it is located, where the marker is situated in relation to other markers, the design of the marker, symbols upon it,…), it can also be called a relic. A video recording, whether of an interview or of a family gathering, has features of a relic, yet it can also be a form of oral testimony. Each of these forms embodies certain strengths and weaknesses that can be evaluated for reliability.

In my next essay, I will try to parse these forms so that each can be individually explored.


  1. The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual. (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing Co., 2000).
  2. Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 17.
  3. Exploring changes in meaning is one of my favorite digressions from genealogy. Linguists know that language is a “living thing.” It evolves and changes. The meanings of a word or term can morph into forms unrecognizable to early users of that term. To illustrate the morphological nature of words, consider the meaning for “mortuary.” Today it refers to a place where dead bodies are kept before burial. However, in the 14th century, a mortuary was a gift claimed by a parson from the estate of the person who willed that gift upon death. According to one source, the modern meaning did not appear until mid-19th century.
  4. Discussing this issue at length is outside the scope of this particular essay. However, I want to introduce it for discussion at another time. I am a regular reader of peer reviewed journals in genealogy. One thing that is often missing from the text of genealogical research articles is the authentication of the records used.  While, as a journal editor, I understand the issues of space limitations, as a “student” of genealogy—which I will always remain—I know that learning from these articles is significantly disadvantaged. If I am unfamiliar with the particular record types used, I have no direction from the author on where to learn more about them. Moreover, I cannot be certain that the author, himself/herself, has performed any authentication of the sources used.  For example, if the author used a poll tax list in constructing their argument, can they tell the reader what a poll tax is and what makes it useful as a source in support of their argument?

In her book, Evidence Explained, Elizabeth Shown Mills wrote that the most important reason to assess the reliability of sources is so that one can reach “the most reliable conclusions.”[1] Critical analysis of sources is the basis of good genealogical research. It is extraordinarily rare that one’s pedigree is already well established, documented as” proven” in any substantial way. Therefore, research of historical records is the primary path to discovery of one’s ancestry.

Devising a simple methodology for critically analyzing sources is fraught with problems. It is impossible to fully assess reliability of any given source by examining it in isolation. History and experience teach us that no source is perfectly reliable, if one means by that complete and certain knowledge of facts related to past events. Sources utilized by genealogists—indeed, by historians generally—are inherently fallible allowing only a fragmentary, often biased, view of past events. From these fragments, we identify the most likely factoids among the falsities, the relevant among the irrelevant. Then, we superimpose our interpretation of those privileged records to create a reasoned construction of our genealogy. Therefore, the conclusions from our research are actually theories of origins and family history. For those of us who yearn for certainty in our research, this constructivist view can be disconcerting.

Continuing my meditations on the five-point steps of GPS, I have to address what I believe is a misstep in parsing or separating the search in reliable sources (step 1) from the evaluation of information found in the sources we privilege or collect (step 3). Whether this parsing of source from information found within it is deliberate or a poor choice of phrasing, I do not know. However, it can lead some researchers to eliminating sources that hold particular facts because in general the source is deemed unreliable. You simply cannot identify superficially which sources are reliable and which are not without examining the information found within them first. In a recent article Arlene Eakle expressed this best.

[U]nless you include the careful examination, in your own genealogical work, of printed sources and books, including those found on the Internet, as well as the original manuscript sources from which those printed works come, your ill-informed research will spread inaccuracies and false claims that will continue to confuse and discourage us. [2]

Eakle goes on to explain that every source needs to be examined for its facts and traditions, whether primary or hearsay, and every source factoid found must be documented for its fitness in relation to other facts. The researcher cannot do this if she has superficially excluded sources that were deemed unreliable in an earlier step.

Of course, none of this is says that generalizations cannot be made about various types of source. I will discuss a few generalizations about the strengths and weaknesses of various source types used by family historians in a later essay.


[1] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace (Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2007).

[2] Arlene H. Eakle, “The Davinci Code and Your Genealogy: Multiple Streams of Evidence,” NGS News Magazine 34 (Jan-Mar 2008).