Sustainable Genealogy: Separating Fact from Fiction in Family Legends by Richard Hite

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Genealogical Publishing Company. However, the opinion expressed in this review is my own.

Sustainable Genealogy: Separating Fact from Fiction in Family Legends by Richard Hite is an interesting read. First, what is sustainable genealogy? In simple terms, it is genealogical research that will stand up to future scrutiny. Research well done. Work that can be replicated by others who draw the same conclusions. And, as the second half of the title states – it’s separating fact from fiction in your family stories. Who among us doesn’t have any of that??

The foreward has been written by Henry Z. Jones, Jr., Fellow, American Society of Genealogists.

Sustainable Genealogy is a compilation of (many of Richard Hite’s own) family anecdotes that could easily lead a researcher down the wrong path if accepted at face value. In fact, some scenarios could yank a researcher right off their own family tree and place them elsewhere. With people to whom he/she is not related in any way!

Most families have elder relatives who have passed down stories of the ancestors, some with bits of truth in them and others that are so wild, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would take them seriously. Hite’s own research has brought him face to face with most of the fact/fiction scenarios that family historians might come across.

An Aside: I have one of those stories, about a very recent ancestor who I knew well – my grandfather, who died when I was 16. Grandmother told me, way back when I first started exploring my family history, that Grandfather attended Harvard, but he didn’t graduate. As I was approaching college age, this story was quite fascinating to me. I contacted Harvard, but the registrar reported that Grandfather had never been enrolled. Grandmother was quite accurate about all the family members she could remember, so how could this have been totally shot down and it related to her own husband, who she grew up with in Calais, Maine? Many years later, World War I draft registration cards were digitized. Grandfather was a veteran of that war and I eagerly located his card. I finally had an answer to the Harvard mystery. He completed boot camp in Massachusetts – at Harvard! Yes, he “attended” and no, he didn’t graduate!

Richard Hite shares many stories like mine in Sustainable Genealogy. Grouped into categories and arranged by chapters, these family legends include everything from incorrect ethnic origins to marrying the Indian princess, spreading the “two or three brothers immigrated together” story with no documentation, to royal kinship and exotic military service (that never happened quite the way the story told it). While my lore about Harvard didn’t take me down any wrong paths, some family tales can do just that, particularly when ethnicity is part of the equation.

This all comes down to perhaps the most important trait a genealogist must possess – good methodology, which is what Richard Hite is promoting.

With each scenario, he shines the light, so to speak, on the need for primary records and documentation of provable facts with a dose of good old common sense thrown in. Is it likely or even possible that any given family legend is true? Questions need to be asked – in terms of chronology and time period, could this have happened? Geographically, is this lore possible? Are there reliable documents supporting the so-called facts as they are presented?

The underlying thread throughout the eleven chapters is that much family lore may be based on bits of facts here and there, but cobbled together into a completely different story. A good researcher must prove or disprove each oral history passed down through his/her family.

Genealogists will find this book easy to read because the main points very easy to follow and Hite follows up each potential trap with recommended steps that good researchers would follow.

Although experienced family historians will enjoy the story format of this book – having plodded through similar lore of their own – this book better serves beginning and intermediate level family historians. Methodology will make or break one’s research. It is so easy to get caught up in the excitement of not only “finding” an ancestor, but coming across what sounds like a great story about them. Beginners can easily overlook the need to document the facts for themselves. Following the many tips in this book will save someone the agony of having to chop off a huge branch of the family tree because of sloppy research.

Sustainable Genealogy: Separating Fact from Fiction by Richard Hite, published in 2013,  is available from Genealogical Publishing Company for $18.95.

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