Research Challenges, Writing Your Story

Adam and Eve and Pinch Me

Adam and Eve (1517), color on paper mounted to pine wood, by Hans Holbein the Younger

Adam and Eve (1517), color on paper mounted to pine wood, by Hans Holbein the Younger

This morning I decided to revisit a few draft genealogies I was developing for future books. One of them was my personal family lineage to Adam and Eve, the original power couple of the Bible.

Yes, I said Adam and Eve.

I know what you’re thinking: It’s impossible to trace any family history back that far. There is no proof; no source documents other than the Bible. How could you ever substantiate your claim?

I can’t. But this begs a bigger question: How accurate do you feel your family tree needs to be before you adopt it as a valid and true genealogy?

I’ve read a number of articles on the Adam and Eve subject and they basically fall into two camps: the “I’ll Only Accept Original Documents as Proof” side and the “I’ll Put Some Faith in Other People’s Work” side. Genealogists of the former tend to rely solely on absolute proof to establish family connections. From a purely factual standpoint, this is the way to go. However, absolute proof requires original source documents and most disappears around the sixteenth century. Those of the latter are willing to trust the work of earlier genealogists and will accept second hand reporting. While this can help flesh-out a family tree, there is obviously room for error or downright make-believe.

Adam and Eve notwithstanding, what do we do when we can’t locate grandmother’s birth certificate? We know she existed because we sat on her knee as a child. We can’t exclude her, right? Of course not! We have first hand knowledge of grandmother and would definitely include her in our lineage. We’d document her existence somehow – whether by footnote, source note, or within the text of our tree. But what if grandmother tells us a story about her parents? Is she considered a valid source? I think so. Nevertheless we’d do our due diligence and try to validate her memories with official record. If we can’t find any, we’d most likely still include her parent’s information in our tree. However, at this point we are already flirting with the “I’ll Put Some Faith in Other People’s Work” camp. Adding grandmother’s memories will depend on whether we decide to trust her or not.

The same concept applies to any book, publication, or magazine that holds secondary source information. Secondary sources are defined as published records that include family histories, indexes or compilations of census or marriage records, any sort of history (county, state, etc.), and collections of cemetery inscriptions. While obvious, it’s worth emphasizing that secondary sources are not original sources but lists of information taken from those records. As a result, there can be errors.

I’m not going to tell you which camp to set up since that’s strictly your choice. If you are a facts-only type of person, understand that you may be limited to what you can prove. On the other hand, if you are willing to act on faith, that’s fine too. However, I’d recommend you consider the following.

  1. Document every source you find whether an actual document or a secondary source. This allows future generations to either accept your results as reasonable or dismiss it entirely.
  2. Never rely on family trees you find on-line as your final answer. Instead, use them as clues and validate their findings. Most on-line trees are substantially lacking in detail and rarely include sources. Your job would be to take these trees, locate the sources, and ask yourself whether they seem reasonable.
  3. When relying on late nineteenth or early twentieth century genealogical compendiums, recognize that they may contain third-hand information. As Ancestry.com puts it for William Richard Cutter’s New England Families, Genealogical and Memorial (1915), “The editors and compilers of the data had a threefold objective in compiling this work. The first objective was to present a concise history of New England families. The second objective was to preserve a record of the prominent present-day (1915 publishing date) people of the area. Finally, the editors and compilers hoped to present personal sketches, linked with genealogical narrative of those prominent families who had widespread influence in New England.”
  4. If you decide to take a tradition as part of your tree, or use a source as historically remote as the Bible, make it clear to the reader. The same applies to mythology. During my family research, I connected to Odin, the Norse god of the Vikings.
  5. Be honest about how you evaluate information. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t use it. Alternatively, if you decide to adopt an unsubstantiated claim as part of your tree, explain why. There is nothing wrong with talking about Odin as part of your lineage providing you let future generations know your reasons for doing so.

I tend to vacillate between the two camps but always start with locating as many primary source records as I can. The nice thing is that original records are rapidly being scanned and posted to genealogical sites. As a result, it’s easier to establish proof and limits our need to travel to Germany to find great grandfather’s birth certificate. The bad thing is not everything is on line. I’d be hard pressed to find a medieval death record anyway. In any event, we need to ask ourselves what we’re willing to accept.

My lineage to Adam and Eve extends backwards in time thousands of years, crossing more than 150 generations. I found that my family connected to The Original Family through common ancestors living in the tenth century. Am I willing to accept this as fact? Nope. But I am willing to take those 150 generations, learn more about the people and how they connect within a historical context, and then decide whether the results are reasonable to me. If they are, I’ll add them. If they’re not, I won’t. Either way, I’ll document my results.

To paraphrase Fox Mulder from the X-Files television series: we want to believe. Our challenge is to make a sound argument for believing or not.

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