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Who Will They Think We Were?

By Daniel Hubbard | March 27, 2011

I often think about what people of the future might “discover” about me or people that I know well. I think it is an interesting thought experiment. If I imagine what my paper trail will look like in a century or two, I can imagine what mistakes a future family historian might make and perhaps gain some insight into what mistakes we make today. We are used to being the researchers and chasing down people who are no longer with us. Imagine instead that you are the person being chased by a researcher that won’t be born for a hundred years. What about your life, your spouses life, your best friends life, will throw that unborn research off? How far off? Could there be similar things giving you problems in your research about people in your past?

I live in the house in which I grew up. My father’s father built it and anyone who looked at my early life and then checked on me now might think I never left. Look in the local school records and there I will be. As a teenager I worked for the local parks department. Look for my children’s baptismal records and that researcher will find one in a nearby church. Then when my wife and I bought the house from my parents, there will be a land record. It seems cut and dried. Yet in the intervening years, I lived in two different American cities and spent twenty years living in other countries. My children were born overseas. I was married overseas in a country where I did not live at the time. Two of my children were baptized overseas. I’d better leave good information for my descendants because they won’t get me right.

I also wonder what sources future genealogist will use. Some will be the same as we use today—birth, marriage and death records are not likely to go away. Nevertheless, new data sources will probably appear. Will they help? Will future genealogists hotly debate their utility? Here is what triggered my thoughts…

Junk Mail

Anyone who has a mailbox, whether it is for paper or digital data, gets junk mail. In the early days of junk mail there was little possibility to target specific recipients. The obvious exception was that people were targeted by their addresses. Not just because a business would only be interested in advertising to people who were close enough to be potential customers but because an address might give some indication about how receptive you might be. It might imply that you stood a good chance of being a farmer. It might imply how much money you have. It might imply your ethnic background. It might imply your religious affiliation. Still you were just a name, an address and a guess, nothing more.

Now companies spend a great deal of effort to figure out who we are, store the information in databases and sell that information to advertisers. It has become big business. What if that future genealogist who is researching you in the year 2200 has access to that sort of a database?

If I look just at the physical junk mail that I receive—mail that, unlike email spam, costs money to print and send, and so for cost reasons ought to be targeted—what conclusions could I draw about myself? I would seem to be both Catholic and Baptist. I’m looking for a retirement community and I have children about to enter preschool. I’m already retired and I own and operate a new company that installs playground equipment, park benches and that digs around gas lines and utility cables. I would also seem to be a war veteran. I have been entered into a database of Chevy owners. Not one of those things is true.

My household would seem to include my father who is busy looking for a college now that he is about to finish high school. My sister lives here as well, under both her maiden and married names. She has never lived at this address under her married name, so someone has figured out that the two versions of her name correspond to one and the same person but hasn’t figured out that the address is totally wrong. My father finished college almost sixty years ago. Several people who have never existed, at least at this address, get mail here every so often. My mother informs me that her grandfather, who never lived within 300 miles of this house, received junk mail here a few years back. That would be about fifty years after he passed away. Someone put in a lot of work to traverse two changes of surname to send him junk mail at her address. He would have been 129 years old when it arrived.

Clearly, the future genealogist who digs through those databases may think they have found a gold mine, but is, in fact,  doomed.

The Moral of the Story

Genealogists spend time thinking about who recorded information, why they recorded it and when they recorded. Did they record something they saw themselves, something they were being told by the person involved as they recorded it or something that happened years before? Researchers in any field look for corroborating evidence. Is there another, independent source or line of reasoning that gives support? As an exercise, what conclusions can we draw now about the information that is out there about ourselves and people we know well?

Every source needs to be met with a bit of skepticism, not to the point of immobilizing the researcher but to the point of inspiring thoroughness and a willingness to disregard a source that proves untrustworthy. Sometimes data that ought to be useful turns out to be gibberish.

One last thing—I’d like to ask future researchers to ignore the retired man with the teenage father and the preschool age children. You’ll recognize him by all the digging around gas lines that he does in his golden years. You may also find him in the company of the great-grandfather who, sadly, is among the living dead.

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