Storytelling Theme Prevails at RootsTech

RootsTech-Logo blue The RootsTech 2014 conference was held in Salt Lake City February 5-8, 2014.  The theme of this year’s conference was, “Connecting Our Families:  Past, Present and Future.”  The Friday keynote address was by Judy G. Russell, a certified genealogist and lecturer who also has a law degree.  Author of the popular blog, The Legal Genealogist, Judy enjoys helping others understand a wide variety of genealogical issues, including DNA and the interplay between genealogy and the law.

Backstage in the dimly lit “greenroom,” Judy explained to Harvey and Jane Baker from Saving Memories Forever that since DNA expert Dr. Spencer Wells from National Geographic’s Genographic Project was speaking right after her, she decided to focus on how easily family history can be lost.

Judy based part of her keynote presentation on a December 18, 2013 article on Examiner.com, written by Judy Everett Ramos and titled “Oral History Can Be Lost in 3 Generations.”  The full article can be read here.   The basic message of her speech was the importance of preserving family information accurately and intentionally.

To reinforce this point, Judy started her presentation by asking the audience to stand for a little quiz where they had to sit down if they didn’t know the answer to the questions. The quiz covered six questions related to only 3 generations (parents, grandparents and great-grandparents).

  1. What was the first illness your mother had as a child?
  2. What was the first funeral your father ever attended?
  3. What was your maternal grandmother’s favorite book as a child?
  4. What was your maternal grandfather’s favorite class in elementary school?
  5. What was your paternal great-grandmother’s toy as a child?
  6. Did your paternal great-grandfather know how to swim, and if he did, where did he learn and what was his favorite swimming hole?

Not surprisingly, in an auditorium that held thousands, only a handful were left standing at the end of this simple exercise. And they were laughingly told to stop showing off.

Judy then explained that since we are not repeating our family stories, those stories are being lost.  In fact, whole lives can be lost.  Judy told several stories to illustrate the importance of storytelling.

Judy Russell headshot

Judy Russell, CG, CLG, JD

The first story was about Judy’s 4th great-grandfather David Baker whose brother, Richard Baker, was killed in the battle of Trenton in the Revolutionary War.  One would think that if a family lost a son, they would pass that information down—but of the 5 surviving sons (Richard’s brothers), only one of them named a son after Richard, and none named grandsons Richard, so even his name was gone in just 3 generations.  Had Judy not found the pension affidavit where David mentioned his brother Richard, she’d not even have known that Richard even existed.

Judy recounted another family history where she was proudly told she had ancestors in the House of Burgesses, on the Mayflower, and possibly even homeowners who hosted George Washington overnight.  As it turned out, none of this was true!  It’s not enough for family stories to just be purposely passed down, but they must be accurately passed down.  Judy recommended the Genealogical Proof Standard as the measuring stick by which we evaluate the family stories we wish to pass down.

Judy’s final story was about her Scots-Irish Cottrell ancestors in Texas.  As a child growing up, she heard many diverse stories about her great-grandfather, including that he rode with the Texas Rangers, and held jobs such as cowboy, rancher, farmer, lawman, traveling salesman, and circuit-riding Baptist preacher! The stories seemed to be in conflict, but after Judy researched the facts and constructed a timeline, they all turned out to be true!

The moral of the story is that when relatives before us lovingly pass stories to us, we must verify and document these stories, and then pass them on to the generations that come after us.  We also should not neglect to tell our own stories as we capture the stories of the past.  We each have our own voice and can connect our own family’s history: past, present and future.

When Judy came off the stage after her speech, Harvey and Jane applauded her presentation—for its content as well as the delivery.  In many ways, Judy’s message was music to their ears because it ties in so well with the Saving Memories Forever mission. In fact, just minutes later Saving Memories Forever was announced as the Grand Prize winner of the Developer’s Challenge in part for the way in which their system facilitates family storytelling.

Capturing our stories can be as simple as using the award-winning Saving Memories Forever system to record stories whenever and wherever they begin to roll.  By uploading these recorded stories to the private website, they will be backed up and can be easily shared with other family members who will cherish the stories.  When connecting photos and documents to these stories, we make them richer and add depth and evidence that enhances the accuracy of the stories.  For those of us who take the time to record our stories and share them, we can break the dreaded cycle of losing of our family history 3 generations from now.

Every family has a story.  What’s yours?  (And…where did you learn to swim?)

Deena Coutant headshot

Deena Coutant is a professional genealogist specializing in the use of technology to facilitate successful search, storage and sharing strategies for family historians in the digital age. For more information visit DigiDeena Consulting at www.digideena.com.

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