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Ten Genalogical Commandments

By Daniel Hubbard | May 21, 2012

Something about this time of year must put me in the mood to write an odd genealogical list. I just checked and it was last year at this time that I decided to write about seven deadly sins. Now, how about ten commandments? There is something satisfying about a genealogical list, even one that is tongue-in-check, that is based on something with such very deep roots.

So, here is a not-so-definitive list, not of dos and don’ts but of “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots.”

I

Thou shalt have other interests.

Nothing adds insight like being able to look at something thoughtfully from the outside.

II

Thou shalt make backups of thy images and documents.

A photo in the hand does not beat two or more in bank vaults and scattered hard drives.

III

Thou shalt not accept a name on flimsy evidence.

Breaking the commandment- “The mother of the former owner of my neighbor’s dog was really chatty when she dropped of a squeaky toy. After we talked, she sent me a photocopy of a note jotted down by her great aunt about a family with a surname that I’m interested in. It’s the right part of New England so I’m sure it is my family and there were so many new names.”

IV

Thou shalt not sit at thy computer until some ungodly hour.

Don’t try to get your spouse, children, pets and acquaintances onto your schedule. Genealogists schedules can be a bit too strange.

TIP: Explaining that you were up until 3 am because you needed to Google several variant spellings of Nicholas Hassenpfeffer will not help them understand. It is better to keep that little endeavor to yourself and go to bed.

V

Thou shalt honor thy parents, and thy parents’ parents, and their parents… and their third cousins twice and thrice removed… and their in-laws… and their subsequent spouses…

Ok, this commandment is sort of a sizable fraction of the whole point isn’t it?

VI

Thou shalt not kill off an ancestor prematurely.

Rarely do family historians resort to deadly force with each other. (To the genealogist who beat me to the last available microfilm reader at the Family History Library. My arm has healed nicely with only minimal scarring.)

We should not use deadly force with the people we research either. Given that a woman I’ve researched a bit was supposed to have died in 1873, I find it odd that her stepson put her in a list of attendees in meeting minutes he took in 1874. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of her death seem to have been exaggerated.

VII

Thou shalt not deny thy ancestors’ adultery, thieving, killing…

Just because an ancestor broke a commandment or three doesn’t mean that you should begin coverup operations. I’ve read some coverups. They aren’t pretty. A steady march of well understood generations suddenly ends with a statement like, “Family lore says that he was the son of a well-to-do merchant and arrived from London at a young age.” Statements like that should often be translated to something like,

He arrived in New London at the same age as most babies, that is, zero. He was the fifth child known to have been fathered out of wedlock by an itinerant snake oil salesman known only as “Dr. Horace Smythe.” Dr. Smythe was hung several months later for stealing horses in a hasty attempt to escape from the somewhat upset father of one of the young ladies of a nearby town.

VIII

Thou shalt not claim someone else’s research. Nor post, publish or spread someone’s research without their permission.

Hmm. There is nothing funny to say about this one.

IX

Thou shalt not bear false witness for or against an ancestor.

Honestly, their lives and their times were interesting enough without any “false witnessing.”

X

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s source citations.

Really. It won’t do any good. No one is going to believe that you found a relative’s marriage in New Jersey in 1889 in a mid 17th century baptismal register from Massachusetts. Citing your own sources, though, might make an excellent commandment XI.

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