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Are You A Genealogist Or a Family Historian?

By Bob Larson
I read an interesting newsletter article from Dick Eastman, a famous genealogist speaker and newsletter publisher, about a debate by professionals on whether genealogists should be called that name or a family historian. Webster’s Dictionary defines a genealogist as one who traces family descent whereas family historian is an authority on known or recorded family events.

The reason for the debate came from another article by James Beidler of the Lebanon Daily News in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Beidler debated the use of the two trade names, indicating ancestor hunting has become a mass sport. I would call it an addicting hobby instead. Beidler claims genealogy is the study of bloodline ancestors, which is also true!

Adoptee Debate

Beidler also claims family historians look at the bigger picture and include adoptees and other members in any family. Even though genealogists include adoptees, they by philosophy don’t consider adoptees part of a family bloodline. They do consider them part of a family by physical bonding. In the past and in these days of open adoption, Beidler felt adoptees belong in both of these categories, one by blood and the other by physical bonding. And by calling researchers family historians, puts all members in a family, not just by bloodline.

One example in a family line is several children adopted by the first marriage or attained through a second marriage, really doesn’t matter. This happened often in the earlier centuries, due to divorces or deaths of a spouse. Most of the time, the children kept their original surname, but still felt attached to the second family.

My grandmother is a good example of this. Her mother remarried several times, but her last marriage produced two more daughters by a different husband. To a genealogist, the daughters were considered stepsisters, but to my grandmother, she considered her two sisters to be exactly that and nothing less! They were very close until they all passed away. Lots of letters written by these three sisters showed that relationship. My grandmother kept her original surname until she married as per the census records. I believe my grandmother felt she still had ties to her natural father, even though she lived with her new family for five years. Her father passed away in 1925, but he and his new wife wrote my grandmother often.

DNA Tests

Per Beidler, another example is the use of DNA in proving family ties. When a discovery is made by a researcher descendant using DNA about a non bloodline link, the descendant feels somewhat betrayed since he can’t prove physically by documents or medically by DNA, that he is related other than physical bonding. Using the phrase “family historian” changes all that concern about whether you’re related by bloodline. Family historians feel any adoptee is a family member no matter what!

Family Histories

However, I have a different definition of who genealogists and family historians really are per Webster’s terms. I feel genealogists just research ancestor’s vital facts whereas family historians obtain a history about their ancestors. After asking several members for their ancestor stories recently, I discovered they’re not even interested in obtaining family histories of their ancestors and I would consider them just genealogists. And nothing is wrong with that!

Here’s my example of a family historian that follows both concepts. I’m writing a family history book on two major family lines with over 100 biographies, but I included spouses, whether they had second marriages and adopted the children of their spouse either legally or by physical bonding. I’m sure they thought of their adopted or bonded children as theirs, regardless of the bloodline. Whether the children acquired a new father or mother, really doesn’t matter as the children felt they were still part of their family.

Regardless, I believe family historians write about their ancestors, while genealogists search for their ancestor’s vital facts without knowing many details of their ancestor’s life. So, how do you feel about the genealogists versus family historian debate and do you consider yourself a genealogist or a family historian? In the end, it probably doesn’t matter if you enjoy doing either one. Regardless I urge you to start writing your family history today!

From the Larimer County Genealogical Society Newsletter, Volume 27 Number 6

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