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April 4, 2012

Take It With a Genealogy Grain of Salt

I've been sorting through old papers for the past two days. Tucked away in a folder in a filing cabinet in the basement was a magazine dated 1988. It's a  Financial magazine, all about making money, investing wisely and so on. This particular issue featured stories of people who had invested wisely and retired early, or were successfully juggling a career with pursuing a dream.

I was puzzled as to why I'd saved it but figured there had to be an article featuring someone I knew. Sure enough there was. The article was a glowing report of a man, we'll call him Sam. Let me preface this with the fact that I knew, and still know, Sam very well.

The article revealed that Sam had a  high-paying career and was also a rather successful emerging artist (I use the word artist to describe actors, writers, poets, painters, sculptors). Sam worked part-time to support his art and his yearly wages which were given in the article were extremely good.

The article portrayed Sam as a very successful person pursuing his dream while earning a more than decent living. A descendant finding this article 50 or 100 or more years from now would be thrilled to think their ancestor was such an amazing person!

But the author of the article only knew Sam for a brief moment in Sam's life. I've known him for a very long time and also know what has happened to Sam over the past 24 years since the article was written. 

The truth is that Sam has made bad choices in his life. The details are personal so I will simply say that his path in life was a downhill one, not the successful one portrayed in the magazine. He is not a successful artist. He no longer has a high-paying career.

He's a very different person from the person portrayed in the magazine article. Reading it made me realize that as genealogists we should not rely on one article or one obituary to paint the full picture of an ancestor's life. These are all subjective views written at a specific moment in time. Take it with a grain of salt. Or at least recognize that it's only one small piece of a person's entire life.


Diane B said...

This is an interesting perspective on media coverage. Thank you for sharing this! It's a good thing to keep in mind. Of course facts can be noted incorrectly but as you say it's important to remember that even the most accurate story is still only the perspective of that moment.

The Grandmother Here said...

This posting brought three thoughts to mind:
1. Money isn't what's important in life.
2. Another example is eulogies at funerals. Some times you wonder if they are talking about the person you knew.
3. Megan Smolenyak said, in her most recent book, that ages in a census should be "taken with a grain of salt."

Devon Lee said...

What a great insight. I've been looking at city directory information to fill in the story of someone between census. It is pretty eye opening, and yet I still have to take that with a grain of salt as well. The full story comes to life the more pieces we use, doesn't it. In any case, thank you for this post.

Cheri Hopkins aka You Go Genealogy Girl #2 said...

Interesting post and a great reminder to us all, thanks!

Cheri Hopkins aka You Go Genealogy Girl #2 said...

Interesting article and a good reminder to us all, thanks!

Marian Pierre-Louis said...

Very good point!

Karen Packard Rhodes said...

As a genealogist, I have learned to make that "reasonably exhaustive search" to find as many sources as I possibly can for each datum in an ancestor's file.

As a historian, I have learned to be skeptical of my sources, and try to parse out what is REALLY being said, the story behind the words. You have made an excellent point.

Susan D. said...

A very illuminating post - and sad too. It shows how we should not make snap judgements on people at any one point in time.