01 January 2014

Wisdom Wednesday - Oral History Lessons

Oral histories. I doubt there are many family historians or genealogists out there who don’t wish they had an oral history in their arsenal of evidence. But oral histories, along with family records like bibles and compiled genealogies, can be very tricky. Not only can there be material errors, but the point in your research when you receive this information can be an important aspect of how it is analyzed.

Case in point: I have a family document that provides details of my Richards, Penn, and Sargent lines. It is one of the first documents I received from Thomas (Tom) Wersel back in 1996 when I first started doing my family research. As a new family historian, keeping in mind it was a time when the Internet and sites like GenWeb and Cyndi’s List were in their infancy, I ran with that document believing that all of it had to be true.

Fast forward about 5 years, and I’d become aware of the fact that it wasn’t the number of names in my database that was important but the quality of the information I was gathering. I ‘started over’ with a new database; not by choice but rather by a catastrophic failure of a computer hard drive and the poorly stored back up disks that failed to work. Lesson learned the hard way. I’d been provided family group sheets by a Professional Genealogist who shared my line and helped me uncover some rather serious inaccuracies in our Penn line (an entirely missed generation). I realized that this ‘hobby’ was one that required more work and knowledge than I had so I set the work aside and focused on other life projects.

I went to college, starting at 40, and learned about research methodology. Critical thinking. Resource analysis. I worked with an art collection creating detailed condition reports and on the papers of a professor at the University I attended, organizing and arranging them so that they could be used by other researchers. I was hired by a local company, as an Archivist, to work in a variety of repositories. And every time I looked at the collections I was working with I thought, ‘Wow, some family historian would kill to have this information.’

So, three years ago (how time flies) I dusted off my family history materials, fired up my laptop and stepped into a whole new world. A world in which documents, from repositories unavailable just 5 or 6 years ago, were available online and for free. A world in which individuals were able to put family trees on websites, along with documents and photographs, to be shared by other researchers. I found myself stumbling over people I’d contacted 10 years ago who were still at it, working a bit here and a bit there to fill in their family histories. And I came across a confounding number of places where work that I’d done long ago and far away had been copied and pasted into other trees, errors and all.

I wanted 'better'. I wanted better interaction between myself and the information I was gathering, better interaction between myself and other people with the same ancestors and to be able to find better ways to do my research. I spent 18 months in the Pro Gen Study Group (15) and learned more than I knew I needed to know. I went to conferences where I sat in rooms listening to people talk about methodology, resources, and the reasons there is a better way to perform genealogical research. I spent time with other family historians and genealogists learning that the shades of these labels are many and incredibly varied. And, I learned that there are detriments to what we ‘know’ to be true in our family histories.

Getting back to that family document, I now see it for what it is: a clue. Actually, tons of clues. Evidence to be analyzed along with all the other evidence I’ve obtained about the same individuals. (Here I’ll shamelessly plug Evidentia, a piece of software I fell in love with last year that captures this evidence to more efficiently analyze it. You can check it out here.) Most importantly, I learned that we don’t know what we don’t know and that adding *one* other document to the mix can completely change how we analyze what we thought to be true, or not true.

In going through my cousin’s family materials I found original letters that corroborated much of what was in my family document. It is, in fact, mostly accurate. So, I went from believing it, to not believing it, to being able to build a case around each piece of information being either accurate or not accurate. 

Yesterday I received a message from someone I’d connected with a year ago on Ancestry. She uploaded a document that discusses the Richards and Penn part of my family history that was also described in my family document. The document she uploaded is an oral history transcript taken from a woman in 1929. As I was reading this document I found myself thinking, ‘Oh, that’s not right.’ Except, how do I know that? I don’t know who the person was who provided this oral history. I don’t know how reliable she was as a source.

She discusses her great grandparents, the two Richards brothers who’d married two Penn sisters. She mentions an “Aunt Jennie”, the same name mentioned in my document. She says that these Richards men are German and possibly Jewish. Huh? Well, that can’t be. 

Except it could be because while my DNA doesn’t show any possible Jewish connection, my mother’s 23andMe profile indicates she has 0.1% Ashkenazi DNA. I initially thought this might be an error, and I guess it still could be, but now I have oral evidence that corroborates a possible Jewish connection. What’s important here is that, without the DNA, I might discount this piece of oral evidence. But I DO have the DNA, so anything is possible.

The oral history transcript is fairly long; eleven pages. Most of it doesn’t apply to my direct family, but I have to take it page by page to analyze each piece of evidence to see how it correlates to the evidence I currently have. Then, I’ll have to see how this ‘new’ information affects what I knew and what potential new areas of research I’ll need to be looking to in order to fully analyze what’s there.

What I do know is that this oral history partially supports the evidence in my family document in confirming that two Richards brothers married two Penn sisters. Is everything in this oral history accurate? There’s really no way to be certain. However, it contains a plethora of clues that can be used to locate other evidence. 

This still doesn’t provide what I need the most: corroborating evidence that John Richards and Mary Penn had a son, Randolph Richards. THAT piece of evidence may or may not exist; I’ll keep looking and hope that some other descendant has evidence that they’ll share. Have you found oral histories or family documents to be as confounding as they are helpful?

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