Do you have a genealogy project?

The most immediate reason that brings all of us into genealogy is, of course, a desire to learn more about our own families. Even professional genealogists like myself started by researching our own families. I had been researching my own family history off and on for almost twenty years, and intensively for almost ten years, before I even considered becoming a professional.

Before I come back to this, I would like to recommend a website I recently discovered: “1698 Southold LI Census: A Study of Identities, Town of Southold, Suffolk County, Long Island, New York,” by Norris M. Taylor, Jr.

On this website, Mr. Taylor has started with a single record set at the core, the 1698 census of Southold, New York, and explored the community represented within these records by comparing the information with that held by other contemporary records. In conducting this intensive research, and compiling this information, Mr. Taylor has succeeded in two accomplishments. First, he has created a resource that anyone with roots in 1698 Southold (including this author) can use with their own research. Second, and more importantly, Mr. Taylor has combined the methods of genealogical research with the methods of historical research, and produced a deep exploration of an entire community.

I conducted a similar project several years ago, using a community of Palatine Germans who settled in Schoharie County, New York in the early 18th century–a community of which quite a few of my direct ancestors (and of course their families) were a part. My project has unfortunately had to sit on the shelf for a few years as other opportunities have come up, and limitations in my access to certain records have crept in.

However, I am currently about four years into a separate project, one where the access to records is much better, exploring a community of slaves and slave owners in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The fruits of this project will hopefully begin to see the light of day over the next several months.

I would like to ask other researchers: do you have a genealogy project?

Even as we explore our own direct ancestors, we must remember that these individuals did not live on islands by themselves. They were parts of communities. By fully exploring the family and other relationships within a single community, we are able to gain insight into that community, and our ancestor’s relative place within it. But more importantly, it is through broad community projects of this nature that we are able to break down even the toughest brick walls.

It is not at all uncommon to find exactly this type of community work in historical literature. Academic history, however, is interested more in generalities than in specific individuals, so the relationships are not often the focus. Just a few of hundreds of articles that I have collected over the years:

  • Thomas, William G., III, and Edward L. Ayers. “An Overview: The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities.”  The American Historical Review, Vol. 108 (2003), pp. 1299-1307.
  • Kenzer, Robert C. “The Black Businessman in the Postwar South: North Carolina, 1865-1880.”  The Business History Review, Vol. 63 (1989), pp. 61-87.
  • Cody, Cheryll Ann. “Kin and Community among the Good Hope People after Emancipation.” Ethnohistory, Vol. 41 (1993), pp. 25-72.
  • Steffen, Charles G. “The Rise of the Independent Merchant in the Chesapeake: Baltimore County, 1660-1769.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 76 (1989), pp. 9-33.
  • Baptist, Edward E. “The Migration of Planters to Antebellum Florida: Kinship and Power.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 62 (1996), pp. 527-554

Each of these journal articles is extremely useful contextual information for those who have ancestry within these geographic or demographic areas.

The difference between these projects and those that I would recommend genealogists conduct are several. Many of these historical works will focus only on a single record set or a limited number of additional records, but fail to explore other record groups. In other words, they fail to meet the Genealogical Proof Standard, in many cases. The historians have not completed a “reasonably exhaustive search” for all relevant records, not evaluated and correlated the evidence, and not reconciled contradictory evidence. This certainly limits the reliability of their conclusions with regard to individual family relationships. They can be excused because these individual relationships are not usually the focus of their research. For genealogists, these relationships would be the focus.

Here are some links to other broad genealogical projects I have come across over the years:

5 responses to this post.

  1. Love this, Michael. I totally agree with you. I always learn more about my ancestors when I study those around them, and I’ve been fascinated by the idea of compiling family history research of communities. Perhaps, then the wheel wouldn’t have to be reinvented each and every time a researcher comes to that community in that time period looking for their ancestors.

    ~Caroline Pointer

    Reply

    • That is exactly my point, Caroline. So many times we find ourselves having to “reinvent the wheel,” as you put it, simply because previous researchers didn’t take the extra time to research other families in the community and compile the information.

      Reply

  2. Another great article that gives me lots to think about.

    Tina

    Reply

  3. Of course my first response was, where would I find the time? But then I thought about a comment Kenyatta Berry made at the APG roundtable last week: before you start going crazy with marketing, figure out *what you want to be known for.* A project of this kind in your chosen specialty might be just the ticket. (There is a blogger, for instance, who has been literally doing biographies of every man in a certain Civil War unit — not quite the same sort of community, but the same broad reach.) Right now the closest thing I have to a project is an every-name index of my home county’s earliest court records (1830s); that’s a few levels below the ambition of the Southold researcher!

    Reply

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