Cover image: Painting by Fletcher C Ransom.
Contemplating America’s history and my family’s heritage has taught me separating folklore, fact and fiction can be challenging. Our perceptions of those things we were told are not always accurate. We may even brandish a document we clench in our hand that in our minds is the foundation of truth. Yet, through my experiences wrestling with family history research, I’ve learned it takes immersing ones-self in more than just a single document to capture the whole story. By taking me on a journey back in time, my friend Chris Brewer helped me grasp a few principles about research versus preconceptions and reminded me of our responsibility to our nation and ancestors.
A Moment in History with Chris Brewer
A crowd began forming around us and our host, Chris Brewer. His deep, storyteller’s voice had penetrated all nearby conversations as his soft, yet commanding tone compelled all ears to turn and listen. Chris, being a large man with deteriorating joints, shifted on the seat of his walker, and turned from the vista of an empty battlefield to his listeners as he poetically described the raging unseen battle before us.
We were standing on the hallowed grounds of Gettysburg where soldiers fell and a President of the United States gave a 2-minute speech…a speech that perhaps our nation needs to hear today.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Abraham Lincoln November 19, 1863
A New Understanding
Something as simple as my original notions of how and when Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address crumbled as Chris spoke. In my youth I was taught he quickly jotted down this timeless speech while on the train transporting him to Gettysburg (Lincoln contemplated and carefully crafted his address). Also, my mind had patched together the fallacy that Abraham Lincoln gave the address after the Civil War (the very date of the speech proves that thought incorrect), and that there was one revered, original hand-written copy by President Lincoln (there are five known handwritten copies). I came to find all of these preconceptions were false, yet, I believed them to be true, because in my memory, I was taught them. (See Library of Congress: Research Guides – Gettysburg Address: Primary Documents in American History External Websites)
Certainly, Chris not only knew the times and places of this historical war and president but had an encompassing knowledge and understanding of the era. Visiting his home revealed countless shelves packed with thousands of books with many more stacked on the floor. It also unveiled another lesson.
“How many books do you have on the Civil War?” I asked him.
Chris thought for a moment and responded, “Between the topics of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, I have about four thousand books.”
Speaking with Chris as he relaxed on the sofa in his living room, it was clear he had not only took the time to read all of these books, he also took the time to study the original accounts, narratives, and chronicles, line upon line over the course of many years as well as pored over maps, visited the sacred grounds, and prayerfully contemplated all that he learned. These efforts were the keys to embracing the full story.
In regard to family history and doing the genealogical research, practicing these same principles are critical. Although we may not have the time to pore over four thousand books, the importance of reading original documents versus relying on an abstract or transcription cannot be overstated. Examining the meaning of words and phrases contained in documents and studying the laws of the day can be vitally useful. Taking time to understand the events and time in history, especially the emigration patterns and movements can shed light on where and why our ancestors left their homelands. Studying the geography and boundary lines of nations, states, provinces and counties, can help us locate records which can steer us to our family.
Learning about our past is said to help us prepare for the future, but not if you’re relying on a feeble foundation. Passing through the veil of this life a few years ago, Chris is no longer here to answer my history questions. Yet, he left me the memory of his voice and the importance of coming to an understanding of events, whether you are researching a nation’s history or a family’s history, through study, prayer, and contemplation.
Remembering, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion . . .”, reminded me of the my duty to embrace the founding principles of America and my responsibility to continue the work of the Restoration, especially the redemption of our dead.
- Read the original record, not just the transcription, if possible
- Learn the meaning of words and phrases (ex: in wills & deeds)
- Investigate the unique laws, such as military service, marriage, who can own land, etc.
- Study the history/geography of the area and time
- Study migrations patterns and movements