We will suppose that at last the task of investigation has come to an
end. We have run our family lines back as far as our plan contemplated,
or as far as we were able to do with a reasonable amount of research.
Perhaps most of them go back to the original emigrants, but it may be
that in a case or two we have had the good fortune to make connection
with an old family stem in Europe. In any case, the work is now done. We
have made our discoveries, and scored triumphs not a few. But though the
excitement of the chase is over, its pleasures are by no means spent. Is
there no story to tell, no tale of our difficulties and exploits? Next
to the exhilaration of the hunt itself, what can compare with the mellow
joy of going over it with a comrade! Least of all can the “inevitable
narrative” be spared in a case of ancestry-hunting. It is the logical
issue of the search, and failure to weave our facts into a readable
story, after having collected them, is almost unthinkable.
Having piloted the reader safely hitherto, we must now faithfully warn
against pernicious ways, even though it should involve criticism of many
of the genealogical books which have appeared in print. The truth is
that in the great majority of such works we look in vain for the proofs
of the statements made. Authorities are not given and we do not find
systematic footnotes, nor even ordinary citations of authorities in the
text. We have nothing better than our own guess to enable us to decide
whether the compiler is giving us the fruit of original research, an
extract from another compilation, unsupported tradition, or a mere
This is most unfortunate, for a genealogical chain is no stronger than
its weakest link. Suppose that we have tested one of the statements in
such a book by our own original investigations and find it to be
erroneous. How can we feel sure that the next statement may not be
equally unreliable? The whole book therefore becomes discredited in our
eyes. With genealogists everywhere at work, the errors in such volumes
are bound to be discovered, and made public.
Any degree of confidence which we can allow ourselves in such cases
depends upon the reputation of the compiler. But no man is infallible,
and how can we know that the author’s methods were such as to reduce his
errors to a minimum? It may be that our own family line has been treated
in such a book, that we have personal knowledge of the compiler, and are
well satisfied as to his carefulness and accuracy. But can we expect
others to have this same faith? How are they to be convinced that our
family history is correctly given in a book of mere assertions, backed
up by no display of authority?
Can a genealogist claim to be exempt from conditions which the greatest
historians impose upon themselves? Does a Gibbons, Macaulay, Guizot,
Motley, Prescott or Bancroft expect to withhold the sources of his
information and ask to be taken on faith? By giving the authorities for
his statements, he proves instead that he has made proper researches,
that his work is faithful, and that he can be trusted to draw judicious
conclusions. We appreciate the great labor involved in compiling an
authoritative work and understand the temptation to compile a book of
mere assertions. But we see no honest escape from the obligation to give
authorities, nor is escape desirable. For it is a sad fact that some,
who support themselves by means of genealogical investigation, manifest
no great anxiety to do honest work. They are careless in gathering their
facts, and their pretence of having surveyed a field is no assurance
that desirable data have not been overlooked or wilfully neglected. In
compiling, they are equally slipshod. Their work is always set forth in
the unauthoritative manner here condemned, and it is most desirable that
others should protect themselves from the outward appearance of a like
carelessness by giving their authorities.
The extra work which the giving of authorities is supposed to entail is
more fanciful than real. The failure to jot down the authority with each
note made in our notebook, to remind us of the actual value of each item
and to direct us where to go for its context or for reinspection, is
probably a much more substantial cause of extra work. And there is no
difficulty in giving our authorities in the manuscript prepared for the
press if this work of previous investigation has been properly done. We
can appreciate the terror of the situation for one who has failed to
note his authorities as he transcribed his extracts. After compiling his
manuscript from his notes, must he go over the whole territory covered
by his research in order to gather up the missing authorities? Unless he
is of heroic mould, he will probably refuse to do so in despair!
Thus the reader can perceive the full importance of doing the work of
investigation properly, as insisted upon in the preceding chapter. If he
has done so, there is no difficulty in compiling an authoritative work.
His note and the authority for it stand side by side, and as he uses the
one he can instantly set down the other.
We have spoken of the legal method of investigation, and said that the
genealogical investigator is like the lawyer who is getting his evidence
together. But this having been done, there remains the preparation of
the case for its presentation to the court. The work of the genealogical
compiler corresponds to this. As the lawyer’s brief compels the
favorable decision of the judge, or as the logical presentation of the
case convinces the jury, so should the argument of the compiler of
family lineage convince the court of public opinion. His should be an
historical document which carries its evidence upon its face. But if his
method has been careless either in research or presentation, the
cross-examination of historical criticism is sure to tear the case to
pieces. Although a temporary decision may be given in his favor, another
investigator will eventually arise and question some of his unsupported
statements. The whole case will thus be appealed, and a new
investigation be called for.
It is perfectly true that a strictly legal method cannot be carried out
in the printed volume. Original documents can be readily presented to an
ordinary judge and jury and by them be carefully inspected. But when we
present our case from the printed page, the whole world is the court,
our readers the jury, and the printed volume itself both witness and
advocate. The original documents, though we may have them in our
possession, cannot be placed in the hands of every reader of a book.
Therefore in compiling for publication, the historical method takes the
place of a strictly legal presentation of the case. This method, as we
have already seen, simply leaves out the feature of affidavits and
certified documents, and substitutes that of references to the original
authorities. It is the legal method adjusted to the conditions of
The reward which flows from this method is easily seen. We cannot hope
that our book will be flawless. Mistakes will occur, and it may
transpire that some of our witnesses were misinformed. But what of this?
If we have followed the historical method, the pointing out of an error
in no wise invalidates our book. One witness out of the hundreds we
have called may be impeached, but this only affects the single aspect of
the case which rested on the testimony of that witness. The rest of the
testimony stands unimpaired.
On the other hand, the historical method involves no undue severity in
the character of our book. It need not be stiff and solemn and pedantic.
If we are gifted with a sprightly style, let us make the most of it. If
we see a humorous side of things, let us entertain the reader with it.
Even though one of our venerable forebears be the subject of the joke we
need not hesitate. Could we appeal to him, undoubtedly he would smile
with the rest and urge us to go ahead and make the book as bright and
lively as possible.
If we have collected portraits, photographs of old homesteads,
tombstones and churches where our ancestors worshipped, ancient
documents and other heirlooms, these should be inserted or referred to
in the proper places in the manuscript prepared for the printer. A
genealogical work embellished with illustrations has its attractiveness
increased many fold, and much can be accomplished in this direction
without incurring a very great expense.
A truly interesting genealogical work is not a dry compilation of family
statistics, but contains striking biographical pen pictures. Let these
be made as complete as possible, and the story told with all the
interest we can throw into it. We believe that the ideal genealogy is
yet to be written, and that it will present facts with the accuracy of
a Bancroft, but clothe them with the charm of an Irving. What
possibilities there are, and all in connection with a work which will
hand down our name, wreathed with the memories of our ancestors, in a
common halo of glory!
In view of what has been said it will be suspected that we do not look
with much favor upon statistical tomes, with their hieroglyphic
abbreviations, disconnected phrases, and other contortions of
condensation. This is certainly true. We would abolish all abbreviations
in genealogical works if we could, and would have the story told in
sentences framed in our mother tongue. We would have the book excellent
in matter, pleasing in style and attractive to the eye.
In closing this chapter we may add that the service of the Genealogical
and Biographical Department of The Grafton Press is intended to cover
every phase of genealogical compilation as well as of genealogical
research. The entire work will be undertaken–both the investigation of
the family lines and the preparation of the manuscript for the press, or
the data accumulated by others will be compiled. Manuscript which has
been arranged but is not satisfactory will be rearranged and edited, or
entirely rewritten, as desired.
In the chapters which immediately follow, the subject of “compiling” is
continued in connection with the two forms into which a genealogical
work may be cast. As we shall see, these forms are fundamentally so
different in plan that the reader must make his choice between them at
the outset. The great point before us in the present chapter is that of
compiling so as to make an authoritative work.