How to Read a Genealogy Book

Over the past three weeks I have been researching and writing the chapters for  a new Research Guide on New York. And it brought back memories of my graduate school study–when I read between 12 and 15 books a day. After a time, I told my family “if I don’t pass my orals, its over. I cannot do this again.”

Since that time, I have read and/or researched up to 75 books a day seeking genealogy details on the families that I am currently tracing, as a professional genealogist. But, this was different–

This is how I approach the genealogy and historical books that I read: first, I check the Table of Contents, then I read the Preface and the Introduction. Many historical volumes have one or the other of these written by someone well-known in that subject matter. Or someone connected to the sponsoring authority of the work.

Next I look at the Footnotes and Bibliography. And I read them all–what sources have been used to supply the basis for the study? In my opinion, this is a critical part of the work. And I prefer chatty Footnotes, whether they are at the bottom of the page or at the end of the chapters or at the end of the book. Did the author encounter discrepancies in the sources? Were interview specifically acknowledged?

My study of the Footnotes is with a pen or pencil in hand, and research calendar pages: when I encounter a source that I am unfamiliar with or that I believe will aid in my research, I prepare notes so that I can follow-up and gain access to those sources. That’s one of the reasons for my study in the first place.

I check the illustrations, maps, charts and graphs, drawings and photographs–what do they show about the subject matter and where can I find my own copies if they apply to families I am tracing?

In other words, I study the books to increase my knowledge. To increase my expertise in the resources available. And I watch carefully for references to the families I am tracing within that subject or place.

This introduction leads into the study of Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer and published by Oxford University Press, 1994. My personal copy was given to me as a Christmas gift by my daughter. And although I have drawn upon the book several times, this is the first time I read it thoroughly. And I compiled a checklist of the historical resources he used to write the study–over 20 specific record groups. Each one he identifies and describes so that you can tell if you need that information. These records and sources, essential to his study, are also essential to your genealogical studies for the same time period.

Court depositions given under oath by militia and Minutemen to determine who were the first ones to fire the shots? The British soldiers or the local patriots who answered the call to show up and defend their neighborhoods and families. These reports were taken a few days after 19 Apr 1775. These local men were participants in the conflict or saw it with their own eyes–eyewitnesses. The depositions came from collections at Harvard University, University of Virginia, and Massachusetts Historical Society.

These were compared and supplemented from applications for pensions available on microfilm at many libraries. Fischer was especially interested in the sworn testimonies in the apps for pensions awarded in 1818 and 1832. The testimonies were written in the actual handwriting of the soldier himself or included affidavits taken in open court–narratives of Revolutionary Service, sworn in court, with 2 supporting witnesses, who were also present in court; one of these witnesses had to be a clergyman.

Personal records of American participants including diaries, journals, letters, and official correspondence, narratives of what happened, often with lists of other persons involved. Among the records in this category were the 12 wooden chests full of personal papers for every year of the War, which General Thomas Gates kept as commander in chief. These chests were deposited in the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor MI.

This is your introduction to just three of the record categories Fischer consulted. At the time of his research on Paul Revere, most of this information was not indexed and not conveniently online. He had to visit the archives and libraries in question and stay long enough to consult them. Now you can use the record category and the identified depositories as keywords for your own searches.

I do recommend Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride as an example of biographical research that will inspire you and perhaps even identify specific information on your ancestors of interest. If he could do it–you and I can do it using the same approach and many of the same sources. Your favorite genealogist, Arlene Eakle

PS How many of you, my readers, knew that one of the witnesses in pension applications was required to be a clergyman?

This entry was posted in Blog and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.