Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What to Believe?

I want to believe what I read, simple as that. But when doing family history, or anything else I suppose, one still needs to apply a critical mind to any information coming through the door. We can't just buy it off the shelf, even though culturally that's how we live. We have to assess everything all the time and monitor what we believe at all times. It's tiring and certainly easier to do otherwise. But really, how else can we ever approach truth, or even versions of it?

See how I introduce my topics philosphically? Maybe as a reader, you're lost before I get started, but bear with me. It's just my process for sorting through thoughts ....

Here's the scoop. Recently I found a will for Ernest Mann who died in 1846 which named an executor as Jacob Summers. I went to find out more about Jacob Summers and in the space of two days I came across multiple sources published in the late 1800s telling the story of one Jacob Summers, a legislator from Michigan. Except there was more than one Jacob Summers, one was a legislator and one was not. And the tale of each Jacob's origin (from New Jersey or Pennsylvania or Germany) turns out to be a mix of folklore and facts that can only faintly be corroborated.

Honestly, I want to attach a big red flag to the sources in question that says "Don't believe everything you read!" and then send out an All Points Bulletin that would magically reach anybody even remotely involved in researching this branch of the Summers line warning them: If time is your most precious resource, don't waste it here, here, and here! But who am I? Naturally and maybe rightly there are those who wouldn't believe me.

Some days, I want more than anything for there to be an authoritative accounting of my family history that outlines everything from people and places to successes and failures. But even if such a thing existed (it would be available on amazon.com), there is always the matter of wonder. Who wrote what, when and why? Maybe more importantly, who did not write, when and why? Then there is the matter of interpretation and by that I don't refer only to the meaning associated with words. I mean perspective - how we see a picture of people and places from our own geographical and historical location. No matter how close we get, we are always removed. There are some days when I have a vague awareness that some things, even if they survive to be passed down, can't even be imagined by me. It was a vastly different reality that somehow exists now in shadow stories about people whose relationships in the world resulted in me, today, pounding the internet, wandering library stacks, staring blindly for hours at microfilm readers, and then wondering what there is to believe.

Here's what I believe. The true story is a journey of many. It's a very long, sometimes wonderful, sometimes horrifying story. It's going on now as it always has, a collective memory that persistently evolves and occasionally introduces me to myself in new and mysterious ways. My 4th great grandfather Ernest Mann had a trusted cousin, Jacob Summers. No footnote required. Except to say that by some miracle, I now have trusted cousins of my own who believe with me in discovering, telling, and preserving our unpredictable story.

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