Sunday, 24 April 2011

Concerning Genealogies

Thursday evening's Ottawa Historical Association meeting introduced me to several people from genealogy's history. One was Frank Allaben (1867-1927), Director of the Genealogical and Biographical Department of The Grafton Press in New York.

Allaben wrote Concerning Genealogies: being suggestions of value for all interested in family history. It was influential, even being quoted in the 1940s by a elder of the LDS Church. How does his view in 1904 differ from that today?

 In the first chapter, Ancestor Hunting, Allaben writes that:
 "... it is doubtful if the whole range of hobbies can produce anything half so fascinating as the hunt for one's ancestry. This combines the charm and excitement of every other pastime. What sportsman ever bagged such royal game as a line of his own forebears? What triumph of the rod and reel ever gave the thrill of ecstasy with which we land an elusive ancestor in the genealogical net? If any proof be needed of the fascination of this pursuit, behold the thousands who are taking it up! The nooks and crannies of civilization are their hunting-grounds—any corner where man has left a documentary trace of himself. Behold them, eager enthusiasts, besieging the libraries, poring over tomes of deeds and wills and other documents in State and county archives, searching the quaint and musty volumes of town annals, thumbing dusty pages of baptismal registers, and frequenting churchyards to decipher the fast-fading names and dates on moss grown tombstones, yellow and stained with age, or cracked and chipped by the frosts and rains of many seasons!
A tidal wave of ancestry-searching has indeed swept over the country. Genealogical and biographical societies have been organized. Periodicals have sprung up which confine themselves exclusively to this subject. Newspapers are devoting departments to it. The so-called patriotic societies and orders have become a host, with branches in nearly every State. They count their members by tens of thousands, their rolls are steadily increasing, and new societies are constantly being organized. There is scarcely an achievement in which our ancestors took part which has not been made the rallying-point of some flourishing society. All these draw life and nourishment from the mighty stream of genealogical research. We must prove that we have had ancestors, and that one or more of them had the distinction celebrated by the particular organization at whose door we knock for admission. 
Librarians and the custodians of public records bear witness to this great movement. The libraries have become wonderfully popular, thronged by multitudes who have enrolled themselves in the army of amateur genealogists."
Looking back, courtesy of a Google Ngram for the terms genealogy and family history, the use of the term genealogy was in decline in publications. The term family history increased until WW1. My interpretation is that Allaben's perspective was coloured by the interest in family history, not genealogy. 

In the second chapter, The Joys of Research, Allaben writes "that having decided to trace back our own lines, we naturally turn first to the living members of our family."
He continues mentioning various manuscript sources, such as records of marriages, births and deaths, church registers, family bibles, and tombstones. He emphasizes the importance of taking thorough notes of the facts with clear information on the source.

He continues to "initiate the reader into a cunning stratagem of the old campaigner."
We often run across a paper or paragraph which we can see at a glance is a " find." We do not read it through, but simply skim over it to make sure of the portion which we desire, and then begin the work—nay, the delightful pastime—of copying it. What a pleasure it is, absorbing the contents, line by line, as we transfer it to our archives! And there is a bit of solid wisdom in this method, for the chance of errors in copying is less when the interest is at fever heat than when the work is done in a mechanical way.
In the third chapter, Compiling, Allaben first comments that " failure to weave our facts into a readable story, after having collected them, is almost unthinkable." He proceeds to:
"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."
He continues for most of the chapter with the familiar arguments for citing your sources before returning to the importance of writing an interesting narrative.

In the next two chapters he discussed clan genealogy, finding all the descendants of an individual", and  "the Grafton genealogy" which is his term for finding the ancestors of an individual. This leads into the discussion in the remainder of the book on the materials and techniques the company is promoting.

Aside from the style of writing, and changes due to technology including the Grafton-specific material, this book could just as well have been written a century later. 

You can read the whole of Concerning Genealogies in the Hathi Trust Digital Libtary at You do have to read it online as there seems to be no way for a non-academic affiliated reader to download the book. 

1 comment:

Ellen Mapes said...

This is fascinating, since Frank Allaben is my grandmother's brother! How do I obtain the information that Frank gathered concerning our family's ancestry from William the Conquerer? I found it once on the web but have since lost it. Thanks.