Passing the Torch

A Note to My Readers:  Being a good family historian…or if you prefer genealogist…is an evolving experience and certainly not one to accomplish alone.  We learn from books, librarians, local historians, certified genealogical instructors, educational programs at institutions like Boston University.  We are guided and nurtured by the experienced and educated individuals at the Salt Lake Library and NARA.  We benefit from the wisdom and knowledge of the folks at the DAR, NEHGS and NYGS and so many other amazing societies and organizations and archives. 

There are so MANY places and people to learn from and share with that we researchers are a virtual global family of our own making.  It is a different experience than when individuals like S. Fletcher Weyburn and Willard Irving Tyler Brigham undertook the task of compiling their family’s lineage one hundred years or more ago.  In those times it was a marathon of letter writing, organizing reunions, writing and reciting histories, gathering and organizing mountains of print correspondence without the benefit of modern day media and communications.  A determined few sailed to Europe in order to trod the homeland in an effort to piece together a long gone pedigree that was rarely written, but most likely was an oral tradition fraught with embellishments and the vagaries of fading memories. And they or their collaborators never stopped researching and writing.  They knew the work was never done.

With steamer trunks full of handwritten journals and correspondence and with weary and aching bodies from haunting dank and damp old archives, the authors of yesteryear began the business of writing.  Most of those intrepid souls humbly admitted that despite their best efforts, they knew their work was subject to faults and omissions. 

Passing the Torch

I write this piece in response to a comment that a reader made last week…not published because it was dripping with ill will and arrogance and frankly, not in the spirit of the research community that I am a part of.  In a past post, I mentioned an old work by Abraham Van Doren Honeyman and his suppositions of the Van Doorn lineage in his work “The Van Doorn Family in Holland and America” published in 1909. I am not sure why this reader was offended that I mentioned the old book or the author’s suppositions.  If the individual had read my comments carefully, he/she would have realized that it was not cited as concrete fact rather as a reference to my intent to explore my heritage further on my own and my own appreciation for such an effort.

Part of my research strategy is to include the old genealogy books in the process…not as matter of fact, but more a point of reference.  And to reach out and with good spirit take up the torch to improve the research.

I love learning from others and continue to find better ways to research and analyze because of the mentoring nature of our genealogy community.  I ran this situation past a group of researchers and was taken aback at the stories that ran from fuming resentment to downright mean spirited behavior.  Seems everyone ran across a fellow researcher whose passion had turned inward and had become territorial tunnel vision.

We are all part of something that is intricate and endless and always in transition as we correct and update our work.  ERRATA, if you will.  We are never finished.  Or perfect. The range of the levels of skill and experience is enormous.  Someone else always will have a piece to the puzzle that we have missed.  Their work may be more focused and detailed depending upon their passion and time spent.   It is folly to think we can be 100% complete as we work to fill in the blanks of personal history and we need patience and the will to continue the work with grace and positivity and the generosity to mentor and share.

Is my work flawed?  You bet.  And I know it.  Do I work to be better?  Absolutely.  Do I want criticism? Undoubtedly.  I welcome it, because I know that a research team of one is very weak indeed.

I write this blog to share my thoughts, experiences and facets of my family history research…and to invite others to share their knowledge…and correct me when I am wrong.  Because I know I will be and it is good to be humble and open to others.  And really fun to defend your work when you believe in it.  The key is to balance your pride and passion in your work with curiosity and an enthusiastic open mind.

Consider the words of A. Van Doren Honeyman in the preface of his book.

“The labor of the preparation of any historico-genealogical work, especially of a family so large as that treated in this volume, involves the most patient industry, careful study, and a wider correspondence than any other form of literary work.  Except for the interest of blood, the author would have paused in his investigations long ago from sheer weariness.  He did so, in fact, about twelve years since, and turned his manuscript over for completion to another gentleman.  That gentleman, however, being unable to complete the task so undertaken, the present author again took it in hand, and for the past three years has used every spare moment, night and day, to complete the record.  It is not yet completed, nor would it be if the labor were continued for another decade; the chief reason, however, being that hundreds of inquiries which have remained unanswered would still not be answered, owing to the indifference of various scatter members of the family, who have lost family interest and pride.  However, on the whole, I know of no old Dutch family whose love and pride of ancestry are greater than pertain to the descendants of the van Doorns.”

He concludes his preface with a challenge to future Van Doorn researchers and that I have taken to heart in all the work I undertake.

“Of course, there will be regret that the ancestors of the three American lines herein traced have not been connected through at least a few preceding generations in the Netherlands.  But the branches of the family in Holland are numerous and large, and to effectuate this desirable result and examination would need to be made of hundreds of church records and all city archives in the Netherlands.  The expense to be entailed would amount to several thousand dollars.  If some member of the American branches of the general family desires to do this in the future, the way is open.”


Plainfield, N. J, March 16, 1909.

So to my readers, family, and fellow researchers, reach out and connect with others in good spirit to collaborate and compare.  Our research will be better as a whole and our community of family historians will continue to grow and evolve in a healthy fashion.  Abraham V. D. Honeyman knew that in 1909.  Before you jump into the main body of any genealogical work, read the preface. The author might just humbly tell you of the fragility and complexity of the work, the love for it and the hope that you consider all of this, pick up the proffered torch and continue the work in that spirit.

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved

3 thoughts on “Passing the Torch

  1. Yes, there are some real winners out there today. I have met a few, but was under the impression that everyone first checks to see if anything has been published on their line. A century old book may have errors, but in the case of Honeyman, it is also filled with “of the little that is known”; “probably”; may have been” “it is the opinion of this researcher” and other not so subtle hints that further investigation is needed. Gosh, wish I owned a copy. Stillwell and Salter made mistakes, but sometimes Beekman got it right! All have been vilified at different times. However, they had to rely on what was available to them. No internet, no scanned documents, indexed or arranged neatly in files. Many records are non-existant due to War and weather.

    Some early writers were only interested in a paycheck and produced impressive pedigrees for the well-heeled. That still happens today, with fancy internet trees and expensive surname reports. I have been disapointed with some findings, but don’t feel the need to vent. Not everyone shares my opinion. Not everyone is as interested in their family history as I am. Not everyone seeks to become certified or produce the well-researched (and sourced) genealogy. Not everyone wants to teach a younger generation the joys of genealogy research. Thank goodness books are still available to us. Thank goodness I still love to learn and Thank God I still have the eyesight to read.

    With the internet, I have connected with cousins who helped me leapfrog over brick walls. But while I certainly use the internet in my research, it is not my only tool. As New Jersey native, living in southern California, I have collected a small private library of books for my research. Have also found that the Los Angeles Central Library has a wonderful History and Genealogy section. So I am not going to give up books as source anytime soon. They are a spring-board to further research. Our little local genealogy society has some amazing folks with an impressive library. I am stunned at how much information is available to us now.

    In the new Feb 2012 issue of Family Tree magazine, pgs. 20-23, is an article “Attitude Adjustment” by David A. Fryxell. In it “Mr. Manners” discusses some of his genealogy pet peeves. Looks like you’re not alone in your experience, unfortunately. Mine has been very positive. But ,I have noticed a few folks that need to be right all the time and feel insulted if someone uses an alternate spelling of a difficult surname. I need a few more lifetimes before I can be such a fuss budget. Nancy C.

  2. I was going to write something like Nancy did, but she said it all and much better than I could have. What a daunting task tracking a family was in 1909. Letters were really the only way to find something — letters to archives, churches, graveyards, family members, other historians. Endless hand-written letters. I’ve run into a couple of sourpusses in my research, but when I started working on the Vantine family, there was nothing but a small manuscript by Lester Card and a family history of Long Island families. I found maybe 5 other people doing research on the lineage. Now everyone’s an expert and I, who have spent almost 35 years working on this family, am a dubious source. It does tickle me, however, when someone quotes some of my old research back at me. So thwpttt to them and keep on reading and writing. I always love to see your work. ~~Carol Yocom

    • Of course there are others out there…digging in and focused on areas that I am not. I just wish that they didn’t have the attitude that I was a “casual dabbler” who had no clue. “Casual dabbler” really didn’t sit well as I work to constantly to source my citations and have a strong analysis…compare and collaborate with others. The individual cited an author “Ledley” that I was familiar with but hadn’t had time to fully read….a “recent” researcher as his Van Doren work was in the 1970’s to improve upon the Honeyman piece. Applause. Applause for him…except when I read some of his comments, I froze. He was not unemotional in his characterization of Honeyman’s work and at times was ridiculously insulting. Devious is one word that comes to mind. One thing that I like about the research is the use of our rational and logical minds and Mr. Ledley at times could not contain himself. Funny how the individual who commented on my blog used the same kind of language toward another researcher. I always include the work of others in my working research, but arrogance tempers my appreciation of anyone’s work. It is so easy to correct and improve upon the voluminous work of another, but personal attacks on character without any knowledge of that person (especially in the case of Mr. Honeyman who was dead!)…well, let’s just say…someone needs to go into a quiet room and breathe deeply before communicating with others.

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