Archive for April, 2008

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).


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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.

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