Saturday, April 10, 2021

We Are All Trailblazers


I don't suppose many have given this notion much thought, but every time people share something about their family history, they have automatically become a trailblazer for those researchers who come after them. The task, then, is to first determine the worth of a trailblazer's work and whether to follow that trail, and secondly, to enter such a journey, equipped to evaluate not only the work, but what else might be hidden along the trail.

Just as I would never think of hiking a trail blazed by another hiker without carrying tools and equipment useful in addressing any hazards I might encounter along the path—after all, it's not incumbent upon the trailblazer to guarantee freedom from possible hazards like a snake coincidentally crossing my path—we need to likewise follow genealogical trails with our eyes wide open.

Genealogy is rife with trails created by other family researchers. Some include documentation. Others blend in photographs and family keepsakes, like entries in family Bibles and other privately-held resources. And some...well, some are just full of hearsay: "This other tree here says this is so, so I will, too."

I don't mind following those third trails. I go down such paths with my eyes wide open, though. Those types of "naked" trees may be devoid of the usual trappings for some honest reasons: they might be place holders for work to be done in the future, or second copies of trees kept in complete detail at other locations. I think of those as creations sketching out "what Aunt Mary told us"—back of the napkin diagrams snatched in the chance serendipitous conversations after Thanksgiving dinner. Sometimes, the Aunt Marys of the world really did know the names of their great-grandparents' married sisters.

Still, whether the words came straight from Aunt Mary's lips, or via the guy hired to write the 1880 history book about Our Family's County, these are reports which still need to see the reflected light of solid documentation. Those Aunt Marys of the world—or the publishers who sold their stories—still need a copy editor to verify their assertions. At least, that's how I see it. They may be trailblazers of their family's history, but following a trail such as that, I want to ensure my own research safety by putting my genealogical tools to good use.

We each, as it turns out, play both roles. We cautiously follow the family history trails blazed by others who initially struck out in this research direction by being the first to publicly report their discoveries. And we are trailblazers every time we, ourselves, post a discovery about our family's history. But just remember: never walk such trails—or create new ones of our own—without carrying and using the tools traveling such a path requires.

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