Adventure of a Child Genealogist
Genealogy has been a passion of mind since childhood. It is hard to believe it has been four decades since I first asked my grandmother about a tintype photo of her father. From her stories I was hooked into the exciting world of family history. I became the nosey nephew at family gatherings, always asking questions and seeking old photographs or documents. Many relatives would get bored with my questions, however a handful of my older cousins encouraged my research. By the time I was twelve years old I had already typed my first thirteen page genealogy book (on file at NEHGS).
Passing Along the Stories
In 1998 I lost my mother to cancer, and the following year my father would also pass away. My eldest daughter Brenda at that point was a mere four years old. As any good parent would, I read her bed time stories. One evening she asked me “What stories did poppa [her nickname for my dad] tell you for bed time?” I was stumped because most of my stories were told by my mom because Dad worked nights. However I had a solution – I told Brenda I would tell her a story about her “Poppa” when he was a little boy. So a couple times a week a family history story would be introduced to Brenda, and later to my younger daughter Hannah. This valuable gift of storytelling was the origins of my own interest in genealogy. My grandmother told me stories that I would never have been able to discover in the census, vital records, or in any obituary notice. The stories about my parent’s childhood during the great depression; my grandfather emigrating from England in 1911; and my dad serving in World War II were just some of the oral traditions and stories I passed along to my daughters, and I hope that they in turn pass them along to their children and grandchildren.
Proving and Citing Family Stories
Often, the basis of a genealogical discovery is based on a family story. As genealogists, we seek to answer the facts associated with our family lore. For instance, you might spend your entire genealogical career never being able to confirm your ancestor shook hands with Abraham Lincoln. Sadly, many genealogists never document the source to where they first heard the story. If your great-uncle Thomas told you the story, did he say who told him? Simply footnote the storyteller, the place and the date (or approximate year) you first heard the story. Like the telephone game children play, the stories do tend to change over the years. A deserter from the Civil War at the Battle of Gettysburg can easily be changed by many generations of story tellers. By the time the story reaches you, the veteran is no longer a deserter but he has dinner at the White House with Lincoln for being a hero at the same battle he deserted from. But by citing the source of each version of the story it is now documented. It is always very important to cite your research, but it is sad to think the oral history of a family may be forgotten because sources cannot be confirmed.
Forty Years and Counting
At the ripe old age of seven I started my genealogical journey into the past. I was able to see how my ancestors fit into American and World history, playing small or significant parts in the story. This interest made social studies and American History fascinating for me. Today, I have been on the staff at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston since 1993. I am honored to be their Chief Genealogist and able to work with our members and visitors. My mother once told me to find a job that you love so much that you wish to come back to work every day. Being able to hear the stories and assist genealogists in their research makes each day worthwhile. These oral traditions add color to our ancestors; it breathes life into a genealogical chart with mere names and dates. Remember the stories, and make the past come alive to the next generation of genealogists in your family.
About David Allen Lambert
David Allen Lambert is the Chief Genealogist of the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, Massachusetts. He is a regular contributor to the NEHGS Register, American Ancestors magazine and articles appearing in www.americanancestors.org David also appears weekly on “Extreme Genes” Family History radio show and podcast www.extremegenes.com. David has published six books on genealogy and local history, and many articles over the past twenty years. David can be reached at NEHGS at dalambert (at) nehgs (dot) org, and is active on Twitter.
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April 12, 2016 – The Cousin Detective – “Who Are All These People?”
April 19, 2016 – Lynn Palermo – “From Blog to Book”