14 August 2010

History and Genealogy: Two Worlds or One

Over the years I've been part of many discussions about the differences in genealogists and historians and why genealogists are looked down on by "real" historians. I have to admit, I don't think too highly of those who are name collectors or are only interested in looking for a prominent or royal ancestor to point to. My husband, who is not a genealogist, always wants to ask those people, 'But what have YOU done?"

But most genealogists want to know more about their ancestors as real people with real lives, black sheep or white, preacher or bigamist (or both), farmer or civic leader. To discover those real lives we need to do scholarly genealogical research to link the right people into families, have a firm understanding of the history of the times to place them in context, and meld the two together in a logical narrative. The big picture "macro history" and genealogy or "micro history" are both needed.

"Modern genealogy—appropriately done—is history in microcosm," states eminent genealogist and degreed historian Elizabeth Shown Mills, but "our field still fight[s] an uphill battle for recognition as a legitimate field of social study." She goes on to describe the rift between historians and genealogists and how it developed.1 But there is hope in her description of "new genealogists" and "new historians" and a coming together in the last few decades.

One example of genealogist and historian coming together, in one person, is Carolyn Earle Billingsley. Her book Communities of Kinship demonstrates how scholarly genealogical research "can be used to tease out the underlying nuances" of a society. In her introduction she discusses the similarities in historical and genealogical research methods.2

My current reading turned up another example of the two disciplines coming together. The current issue of Southwestern Historical Quarterly has a review of a book useful to both genealogists and historians.3 Mark Gretchen has documented slaves of Guadalupe County, Texas, using the records thorough genealogists use every day: tax rolls, census enumerations, court, deed, probate, and sale and mortgage records.4

I can't wait to read this book as I had an idea to do something similar for one of my counties, but the project has been on the back-burner for several years and may be for a few more. But I bet I get some great ideas on how to proceed.
1. Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Genealogy in the 'Information Age': History's New Frontier?," National Genealogical Society Quarterly 91 (December 2003), 260-277, particularly 260 and 261; online archives, (http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/galleries/Ref_Researching/NGSQVol91Pg26077GenealogyHistory.pdf : accessed 14 August 2010).
2. Carolyn Earle Billingsley, Communities of Kinship: Antebellum Families and the Settlement of the Cotton Frontier (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004).
3. Deborah Liles, review of Slave Transactions of Guadalupe County, Texas by Mark Gretchen, Southwestern Historical Quarterly CXIV (July 2010): 96-97.
4. Mark Gretchen, Slave Transactions of Guadalupe County, Texas (Santa Maria, California: Janaway Publishing, 2009).

© 2010, Debbie Parker Wayne, All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. Debbie, thank you for this post. I have been contemplating the relationship between the genealogist and the historian as well recently. I have found that to be a good genealogist and more importantly a successful Professional Genealogist we have to incorporate a measure of history and put on our "historian" hat in order to provide a full picture of any one ancestor or family group.

    Melissa Barker
    Professional Genealogist
    Specializing in Tennessee and Kentucky Genealogy Research