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The Attrition of Facts

By Daniel Hubbard | March 30, 2014

When I studied ancient history in this university many years ago, I had as a special subject “Greece in the period of the Persian Wars.” I collected fifteen or twenty volumes on my shelves and took it for granted that there, recorded in these volumes, I had all the facts relating to my subject. Let us assume—it was very nearly true—that those volumes contained all the fact about it that were then known, or could be known. It never occurred to me to inquire by what accident or process of attrition that minute selection of facts, out of all the myriad facts that must once have been known to somebody, had survived to become the facts of history.
—historian E. H. Carr as quoted in The Improbability Principle

We don’t generally research events of quite the historical importance of the Persian Wars. It was a period of fifty years that involved hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians and left a deep imprint on the future of the world but even so, “fifteen or twenty volumes” could contain the sum total of the information about that half century of intermittent war. It makes one wonder about the “process of attrition” that has limited what we can learn about our own, more immediate, ancestors.

I’ve been researching a woman who applied for a Civil War widows pension. she was required to prove various things in order to be entered into the pension rolls. Obviously, her husband must have died. That she could prove. Equally obviously, the dead man must have been her husband. She had been married previously so she also needed to prove that her first husband had died. Those last two important events had occurred in Chicago in the years before the Great Fire of 1871 and she could not prove either of them. There was already attrition of facts in her past.

Records burn and memories fade. How often do we run into someone who consistently says that her father was from New York and her mother was from Ohio, only to find that her parents consistently said that they were from Germany and New Jersey? How often do we find the phrase “don’t know” written into the census or a death certificate?

As researchers we are often forced to rely on implications and reason to try to replace what had once been known, what had once been clearly documented. We painstakingly rebuild what attrition of facts has torn down. That, I think, is when searching for the personal past goes from interesting to sublime.

People who are interested in genealogy but not genealogists themselves are often amazed not just by what was found but by what can be found and pieced together. They are fascinated by the fact that it can be known. That amazement is something we ought to remember. We ought to take the time on occasion to sit back and ponder or perhaps “to inquire by what accident or process of attrition that minute selection of facts, out of all myriad facts that must once have been known to somebody, had survived to become the facts” of our family history.

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