Monday, 9 February 2015

Is there Room for Opinion in Genealogy?

As genealogists we concern ourselves with facts: dates of birth, addresses, names of children and so on. Those participating in the Genealogy do-over are obsessed with collecting evidence in order to prove facts and rightly so. History students, from school age upwards however deal with both fact and opinion and a crucial skill is learning to distinguish between them. Elizabeth the first died in 1603 - fact. Elizabeth the first was a great queen - opinion - not that many school syllabuses seem to allow students to stray any earlier than the twentieth century these days.

If our ancestors are to become real to us, I believe we need to venture beyond the facts to form opinions about their characters. How wonderful to learn about the personalities, foibles and frailties of our forebears. ‘Grandad was never very sociable’, ‘Auntie Jane was always telling jokes’ and so on. This is obviously easiest for family members whom we ourselves knew well. Were they extrovert or introvert, friendly or aloof, humorous or serious? If we have older relatives, we can ask their opinions of people who died before we could get to know them. If you are the ‘older relative’, record your opinions of your immediate ancestors for the benefit of others. Personal testimony is the most obvious source of such opinions. If we find that sources and memories disagree about facts though, how much more will they vary when it comes to opinions?

Clara Dawson

My mother always spoke of her maternal grandmother in very warm terms. It suited me, as the latest in a line of what I perceived to be warm and cuddly grannys, to buy into this opinion. My own granny was wonderful, my mum was a brilliant granny to my own children and I hope I can be the same to my own, recently acquired, grandchildren. So there was great-granny Clara at the top of a long line of paragons of grand-motherhood. Until that is I spoke to one of Clara’s two surviving grandchildren, now aged ninety, who said, ‘She was a dreadful woman. She didn’t care at all for children and always had a cat on her lap instead.’ Two very contrasting opinions then. Which is correct? Well of course relationships are complex and in their own way both of these conflicting views must be seen as accurate, from the point of view of the individuals who expressed them; both are valid as opinions and indeed as evidence.
What then about earlier ancestors, whom no one now alive has met? Sometimes clues peek out from the documents. I discovered from railway records that my grandfather, whom I barely knew, took part in the General Strike of 1926. This suggests that he may have been a bit of a maverick, willing to stand out from the crowd. Of course he might just as easily have been swayed by the peer pressure of his colleagues. Letters and diaries are perhaps the most informative when trying to ‘get to know’ our more distant ancestors. Remember though that these may be influenced by circumstances or the intended ‘audience’. For example, the concept of not speaking ill of the dead is not new, so a description of a recently deceased individual might stress the more favourable aspects of their personality.

How are we to document these opinions? They can be recorded and sourced in the same way as facts that are gleaned via oral testimony: ‘interview with x on such and such a day’. I am known for distinguishing between genealogy (the pedigree) and family history (the context). Character judgements about our ancestors most definitely belong in the domain of family history and are as import as other contextual material.

Do not record opinions as if they were facts, treat them on their own merits. Beware of drawing dogmatic conclusions about your ancestors. How many times have you corresponded with someone online, felt you have got to know them and then found them to be very different face to face? At best we will only get glimpses of the personalities of people of the past; these will not be well-rounded portraits. The interesting thing about people’s perceptions about others is that they are intensely personal and there may not be a consensus that x or y was a thoroughly good chap, it would be unusual if there were. This does not mean that we should disregard them. Facts are vital but do ‘get to know’ more about your ancestors as real people by seeking opinions too.

Janet Few


  1. Great content Janet! It is so difficult to bring our ancestors "back to life" based on what we learn of them in documents. Our own interpretations are subject to our own world, and people, views. Still and all we need to try to blend the objective and the subjective, clearly identifying how we reach our conclusions.

  2. Great post. Great reminders.

  3. YEs. I had to do one about my Slave Grandmother. None of her Grandchildren had anything to nice to say. I found a way of putting it in without being to mean. Sometimes if I can find a way from 2nd hand information. I'll add these things. It's part of their personalities and what makes them. I'm always asking questions of my Ancestors as if I'm talking to them sometimes. That is how I add my Opinions in.

  4. I recently had just such an experience of differing opinions of the same woman -- my great great grandmother. My grandmother always revered her but was never close to her. Yet, a recent contact of her step-chil's grandson revealed his grandfather didn't like her and called her "that woman." He held against her the fact fact he had to move out of his father's home when his father married my 2X great grandmother. They married in 1897. Yet her 6 children were lodgers in homes all over town and her new husband's two children were living in the home. I don't know if my 2X great grandmother deserves the reverence my grandmother gave her, but she certainly didn't deserve the bad rap she got from the descendants of her least not over getting kicked out of the house. Memories are so interesting!


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