Completeness and restraint

It is one thing for the author of a genealogy to have the goal (or scope) of publishing everything about all the descendants of [blank], and a much, much different thing to achieve that goal.

Clearly, there is no such thing as “everything” and “all.” The author has to decide what information she wants (or is able) to include, how much detail of that information to provide, and whether the same standard will be applied to everyone. Does the standard go beyond names, dates, and places? Are probates, land and church records, gravestones, obituaries, pensions, census records, and the like provided in detail when available? How exhaustive has the search for these facts been? Are there individuals who are treated in extensive detail while others have little, suggesting that the book might have begun as a “my ancestors” work and morphed into a catch-all for anybody with the same name, but without the same degree of research? Has the information been presented completely and honestly, or are there indications that some embarrassing or controversial information has been expunged?

Does he lavishly extol an ancestor’s virtues based on nineteenth-century hyperbole?

On the other hand, has the author used any restraint in limiting his verbiage? Does he lavishly extol an ancestor’s virtues based on nineteenth-century hyperbole? Are there resumes, certificates, stories of bear-trapping excursions, picnics to the old cabin, and Grandma’s apple pie recipe?

That does not mean that the apple pie recipe is not worth preserving nor that our ancestors should not be remembered for the good that they did, but the first purpose of a useful genealogy is to present supported facts of all individuals within the “scope” of the book in such a way that the reader can readily and reliably locate their connection to the family group. That is the skeleton. Then the author adds flesh, skin, and clothes with whatever sources may be available – probates, deeds, town histories, censuses, gravestones, letters, photographs, etc. That is the structure of a “genealogy.” Lengthy stories, tributes, and memories belong in a family history (a subtle distinction) where they can be celebrated for their own worth.

Next week, we will talk about accessibility, then begin to pull this tentative “rating” system together with some examples. If anyone has a book in mind that they would like to have rated, or to compare your rating with mine, let me know.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

25 thoughts on “Completeness and restraint

  1. One thing to consider; some areas have scant research to be follow…half of my dad’s family is Canadian…and their vital records, censuses, and public records in general are far more restrictive…some may say repressive and anti-genealogy. I am thus at the mercy of available newspapers, family members responding to queries, and already published data. For the American end, data abounds.

    1. Michael, indeed, but you have made the effort and can report what records are not available in your search. In your case that is as exhaustive as you can do until more records are available. I’m talking more about authors who don’t even make the effort.

  2. To add to your points Alica…..Genealogist James Pierce Root (1829-1897) reminds us that one of the idiosyncrasies of genealogy and family research is that one is never able to bring it to a close. That the researcher can rarely if ever be sure of having accessed that “last storehouse of records” confirming the details of his or her family history. Root also reminds us “no one should wait for absolute perfection before committing his work to the press”. There is a temptation to withhold from publishing, and to continue trolling archived records for those bits of missing information that may in the end no longer exist due to destruction or deterioration. Authors may also be tempted to continue to edit and revise their works in pursuit of faultlessness. However, refraining from publication must be avoided. There are a great many benefits that can be achieved by releasing the body of facts found to date, even if what is published is subject to corrections.
    Thanks for this article.
    Donna TILLINGHAST Casey

      1. This is all helpful to me as I am working on a paper where I am trying to connect an ancestor to parents … how much to include about his life, etc.

    1. On Root’s principle that “no one should wait for absolute perfection before committing his work to the press” — my grandmother Frances Keithahn ( understood that, after decades of research on the ancestry of herself and her two husbands, she needed to decide how much of her research to publish and in what format. In the end, she opted to prepare a genealogical update of her great-grandfather Christian Lehman Pfoutz’s old Pfoutz Genealogy book, taking his book as her starting point and then bringing the various branches up to the 1980s through both male and female lines, including several old photos from her collection. The rest of her genealogical archive came to me when she died in 1993.

      1. …There can always be discoveries, amendments, corrections, additions made for our work…but the work needs to be “out there” in order for that to happen in a fruitful way. A smart Grandmother!

      2. Jared, Kudos to Grandma. The best part of this new Internet world is that others should be able to publish additions, updates, extensions much more readily. The technology isn’t yet user friendly enough, unfortunately, but the methods will develop to fill the need.

  3. Would this be an example of a book to rate? B.F. Hubbard, “Forests and Clearings. . . History of Stanstead, Quebec,” published in 1874. Available online. Based on the work I have done on several families, I would rate it as generally fairly accurate. It is possible to verify many statements in the book by notarial records, and the Drouin Collection, census records, etc. However, this is another book published with NO sources, so we have to find records to check for accuracy.

    1. Wow, Carole, which Stanstead family are you related to? A branch of my Beebe ancestors ended up there, and I’ve found that there’s not a lot of other documentation of the migration of that group of families who moved there after the revolution.

  4. I look forward to the next chapter… you have started a lively dialogue with your readers!

  5. Re Doona’s thoughts, as a machine design engineer, I often heard that there comes a time in every project to shoot the engineer and start the project [change shoot to stop possibly these days].

  6. Is Albert Welles a renowned Genealogist or considered unreliable. I know his William Buel work is wrong in the English section. He relied on English researchers. Who missed William Beville’s death and probate records in England. Before William Buel appears in the Colonies.
    Same with the Reverend Hewett of Windsor a supposed relative of Buel. Many researchers here believe his work. An American used his work and his son “updated” the mistakes.

  7. I just completed a book with and about my 92-year-young father, loading it with back stories about the big ancestral shoulders on which he stands. It was time to put the story puzzle pieces together and get it all to press, and we are thrilled with the result. Not only a treasure for future generations, it’s also been a real hit with our community due to its historical underpinnings—have already had seven book signings, with several more on the calendar. Our mayor even purchased three copies.

    We donated a copy to the NEHGS library, in gratitude for their kind assistance with some data. You might want to check the work out— Here’s To It! by Gerald A. Jewett, Jr.—or for a signed and personalized copy, just let me know! A free download of the first 45 pages can be obtained through the publisher,, for a flavor of how I helped bring our personal genealogy to life.
    Jennifer Jewett Dilley, Des Moines, IA

    1. Jennifer, yes, indeed, a great accomplishment. This and other forms of presenting family history in addition to standard genealogy is something to discuss in future posts.

  8. Dear Ms. Williams,
    Is it your opinion that to be acceptable to a lineage organization, the family history author
    had to have had first hand information of the people he is documenting?
    This would be in the 18th century.
    Thank you so much for your opinion. I would value it.

    1. Wing, If there is no indication in the book about where the author’s information came from, it will not be strong enough by itself to support a lineage claim. There are times when mention is made that information came from so and so or that the author had access to his grandfather’s papers, etc., when it MIGHT be useable, but otherwise, you are going to have to locate primary evidence that supports the claim.

  9. Dear Ms. Williams,
    Thank you so much! The person who wrote the history was living in the same place
    and had first hand knowledge of the people and events from the family. He was related
    to the family as a nephew of the ancestor.
    I see and understand your point. I would never have taken this on if I had known your wisdom.
    It’s just difficult when a family goes to the wilds of Maine and are the first settlers to begin
    felling trees (and destroying the environment) and building homes. There simply are no
    records for these early days, at least for my ancestor.
    Your fan,

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