The blend of genealogy and history: the future of both?

Not too long ago I was reading the book The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925by Herbert Gutman (New York: Random House, 1976). This book is considered a standard in the field of the study of enslaved families, though it also has many opponents.

Reading the book through the eyes of a genealogist who specializes in the study of enslaved families, I was struck by a weakness in Gutman’s methodology. While he does indeed utilize a wide variety of record groups, making the greatest use of Freedmen’s Bureau records and manuscript plantation records, Gutman only uses a single record group for any individual slave or group of slaves. As a genealogist we know that we must examine all relevant records in order to come to a genealogical conclusion. Gutman’s conclusions about the families he discusses should have been bolstered through the use of federal census enumerations, tax lists, probate records, and the combination of deeds and maps. Yet he does not use these records and his identifications of enslaved families suffer because of this negligence.

But the bottom line for Gutman was not how specific slaves were related. His identification of the relationships between various slaves served only to demonstrate the truth of his conclusions. This is the difference between historians and genealogists. For the genealogist, the identification of an individual or specific relationships among various individuals are the conclusions we seek. For the historian, these identifications are the evidence upon which their conclusions are formed. The conclusions are much more generalized. Gutman believed that “enslaved families did this” while his detractors and opponents believe that “enslaved families did that.” Whether these conclusions are true for a specific family is beside the point.

I read quite a bit of historical research to improve my genealogical research. Books, journal articles, and dissertations all express the latest thoughts of this or that historian. I appreciate these perspectives because they help me blend my genealogical research methodologies with more generalized historical research methodologies.

Understanding the generalities can provide significant insight into the families I am researching. Did they behave in a manner common to others of their background in that location during that time period? Or were they “odd men out”? This may help to explain and identify their actions throughout their lives.

This is just a single example of how historical research can inform genealogical research.

I began this essay by speaking of the weaknesses of Gutman’s study. Had his conclusions been based on a more methodological–and genealogical–study of the relevant evidence, rather than a select group of records, his conclusions would have been far more, well, conclusive.

This is a single example of how genealogical research can inform historical research.

I recently became aware of the work of Mark Auslander. Dr. Auslander is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and the Director of the Museum of Culture and Environment at Central Washington University, in Ellensburg, Washington.

In an interview concerning his book, The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family, Dr. Auslander described a research trail that will sound familiar to genealogists:

I had learned at the National Archives in Washington D.C. that Kitty’s second son was named Russell Nathan Boyd; might he have been named for his father I asked Tolstoy, who purred approvingly.  So I called up Freedman’s Savings Bank records on Ancestry.com, and lo and behold, there was a “Nathan Boyd,” opening a bank account in Atlanta in 1871, listing as his wife “Catherine, Dead” and as his eldest son, “Alfred Boyd.”  That led me and my wife to Keosauqua, Iowa, where Alfred had settled after the Civil War, and along the trail of African Methodist Episcopal churches he had pastored in the midwest, leading to the church in Rockford, Illinois where his great grandson Mr. Caldwell, an enormously kind man in his eighties, served as trustee.[1]

Dr. Auslander even used Ancestry.com!

In another post, on his blog Cultural Productions, Dr. Auslander illustrates his philosophies on blending historical and genealogical research:

My recently completed book manuscript (The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of the American South) attempts to integrate restorative cemetery work and genealogical research–in a way that is linked to a single institution of higher learning, Emory University.[2]

I have not yet read The Accidental Slaveowner, but it has been placed at the top of my “to-read” list.

I would like to applaud Dr. Mark Auslander, and his recognition of the value that genealogical research can have for historians.

SOURCES:

[1] Derek Krisoff, “Mark Auslander interviewed about The Accidental Slave Owner,” in Mark Auslander’s The Accidental Slaveowner Blog, posted on 1 August 2011 (http://www.theaccidentalslaveowner.com/Mark_Auslander/Blog/Blog.html : accessed 27 Aug 2011).

[2] Mark Auslander, “Slavery and Academic Reparations,” Cultural Productions blog, posted 4 Sep 2010 (http://culturalproductions.blogspot.com/ : accessed 27 Aug 2011).

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Nice commentary, Michael. Good, solid points!

    Reply

  2. This is a very good post…I just have one more thing to say, Can you be my mentor?

    Reply

  3. Thanks very much for the kind words about my work. The book you mentioned, The Accidental Slaveowner, is being published today, August 31!

    Details:

    “The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family” (University of Georgia Press, Fall 2011)

    http://theaccidentalslaveowner.com/

    http://www.ugapress.org/index.php/books/accidental_slaveowner/

    I am fascinated by what you have to say about genealogical and historical approaches. I should explain that I am trained not as a historian but as an anthropologist, working in southern and central Africa, so I’ve long been interested in the fine details of kinship. I have stumbled my way into learning about genealogical research, mainly through the kindness of the many genealogists I’ve met over the years at state archives and public libraries and court houses from South Carolina to Iowa. I sure wish I’d gotten this training in grad school, but remain grateful for all the patience that the real genealogists have shown me, taking time to explain tax records, land plats and a thousand other things to a beginner like me.

    Reply

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