Modern Software Experience


attributing an aphorism on source

Genealogy without documentation is mythology

The article Genealogy without Documentation is Mythology expounds on the aphorism Genealogy without documentation is mythology.
There is disagreement about what the aphorism really is. The aphorism is sometimes given as Genealogy without sources is mythology, and rarely as Genealogy without proof is mythology. That last one is arguably the best variation, and I will argue that it is the original one.

The aphorism Genealogy without sources is mythology seems to exist without a source.

mythological aphorism

The aphorism has itself become mythological. It seems to exist without a source. Everyone loves it, everyone is copying it from each other, but no one seems to knows who originated it. It is rarely attributed to anyone. The aphorism Genealogy without sources is mythology seems to exist without a source.

If anyone bothers to attribute it, it is generally attributed to either anonymous or unknown. I have even seen a genealogists with ProGenealogists misattribute it to a copy & paste blogger, a remarkably unlikely source for original thoughts, without so much as a source citation, in a blog post titled Citations! Citations! Citations!

copy chain

All the people copying a quote from each other form a copy chain. If you follow that chain back, you'll end up at the source. Well, that would work if everyone cited their source, but in this case, almost no one does.
In fact, there hardly is a source as such anymore. The phrase has become a part of popular genealogical culture. It is an aphorism passed from one genealogist to another as part of our common genealogical wisdom. It has been repeated, remixed and repurposed.
Many a genealogical publication includes this phrase. It is hard to find a genealogists who has not heard, read it, and uttered it turn.
Still, someone came up with it. Someone said it first. Someone wrote it first.

genealogy without * is mythology


Let's google for it.
You don't have to google separately for genealogy without documentation is genealogy, genealogy without sources is genealogy or any other variation. Google supports wildcards, so you can google for genealogy without * is mythology to search for all the obvious variations at once. When I did so in March of this year, google reported that it found about 54.500 hits - and don't expect that number to go down.

Now, if you add a year to your query, many results found by Google will be instances of that phrase used in that year. For many reasons, the number returned isn't exactly that, but it is quite revealing anyway.
The table shows the numbers that google returned for those queries when I executed them in March of this year. The numbers aren't extremely accurate, but the table still shows how popular the phrase has become in recent years. Notice that Google already found more than seven thousand hits in combination with the search string 2011, while the year was far from over yet.

You have to be careful not to read to much into a table like this. Still, the results do suggest that before 2004, the phrase was not mentioned very often. Of course, many web pages that were around back then, aren't around anymore. On the other hand, many of the results that Google returns for those years, do not correspond to uses of that phrase in that year, but to more recent usages which merely include that year, or just that number, somewhere on the same page. That is the major reason that Google finds hits for 1994, while their search engine was started in 1995.

books has a look inside feature that allows you to view portions of a book before you decide whether to buy it or not, but Amazon does not offer a search engine to search for a phrase and discover which books contain it.
Google Books does allow searching for phrase, and supports wildcards like Google Search does. Google Books returned just three results.
The first result is the book How will I know where I'm going, if I don't know where I've been? by Elizabeth Ruderman Miller, published in 2009. It does not list a source.
The second is an article in American Spirit, published by the Daughters of the American Revolution, volumes 135-136, published in 2001. It claims to quote Nedra Dickman Brill saying Genealogy without documentation is mythology..
The third is an article by Mark Howells in the September / October 2000 issue of the now defunct Ancestry magazine, again without providing a source.

mailing lists

The phrase occurs several times on the WVPIONEERS mailing list. It earliest occurrence is a message by Dan Hamrick, who notes that he found it on the Pendleton county list. It was later added as the WVPIONEERS signature, and attributed to Nedra Dickman Brill, although she never claimed to be the originator. In fact, the 1999 post in which she first introduced it to the WVPENDLE list does not identify the originator, but does make it crystal clear that she did not come up with it herself and does not claim authorship: Sent by a subscriber: Genealogy without documentation is mythology.. There are two short replies to post; ggggg, how true and Amen.. That post and the two replies suggest that, back in 1999, the phrase wasn't well known yet.


On 2004 Apr 8, Rebecca Everett posted a message on Jolley Family Genealogy Forum. Part of that message reads:

I corresponded with an admired genealogist named Mary L. Henke in 1999 & 2000 about the "stone wall" that resulted from the destruction by fire, of records in NC-- and like her, (her motto: "Genealogy without proof is Mythology") I have distrusted some of the information proposed by those family historians.

That same message notes that Mary L. Henke died in 2000, and that Betty Moran inherited her Jolley database.

Genealogy and mythology

Genealogy and mythology have been mentioned together before.

For example, in Genealogical Evidence: A Guide to the Standard of Proof Relating to Pedigrees, Ancestry, Heirship and Family History, published in 1989, Noel C. Stevenson wrote:

It is common knowledge among historical scholars that for many centuries during the Dark Ages no records were kept on which any authentic pedigree, bridging that period of time, can be based, and that no extant European family can be traced back to the sixth century of our era.
To be sure, lofty pedigrees were later fabricated for the rulers descended from the able and ruthless men who founded dynasties during that chaotic period, but this was done as matter of prestige, much as the rulers of Japan claim descent from the sun-goddess.
There are no contemporary records or documents to substantiate any of them, and no serious historian or genealogists regards them as anything but mythology.

genealogy is not mythology

The observation that genealogy is not the same as mythology goes a lot further back than 1989.

Back in 19th century of the Gregorian Calendar, in her article The Smiths of Nassau - John Smith, Rock published in the 1899 October issue of The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Martha Bockee Flint wrote:

Some writers give as distinct families,"the Weight Smiths'~ and the "Blue Smiths," names referring to the ownership of the public scales, and to the habitual wearing of a blue coat by the founders of the respective families. But genealogy is not mythology, and one may well distrust such legends.

She refers to a family story as legend. She expresses the idea that we should doubt unsubstantiated stories, thus expressing the idea that we should demand proof for family history, just as we demand proof for genealogy.

This is mythology, not genealogy.

In his 1929 review of The Abridged Compendium of American Genealogy: First families of America. A Genealogical Encyclopedia of the United States., edited by Frederick A. Virkus, published in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Arthur L. Keith wrote:

In Vol. II, p. 370 we have a wonderful pedigree reaching back to a Markgrave of the Scheldt who died in 601, from him back to a Roman Senator, proceeding further arrives at a Roman Emperor, and refusing to be sated threads its way back by uncharted paths into the pre- Christian period to an ancestor of Trojan blood. It is to laugh. This is mythology, not genealogy. If this pedigree is presented as an attempt to add an element of spice or facetiousness, it is sadly out of place in what purports to be a serious work. If it is seriously meant, it condemns the work as a piece of colossal ignorance and audacity. Such impossible claims provoke the ridicule of all who understand the meaning of authenticity.

The entire, scathing review of this infamous publication is well worth reading. Arthur L. Keith exposes several lineages as fabrications through his knowledge of the relevant records, and near the end of his review unequivocally states that rules of evidence and scientific interpretation are important to both genealogy and history.

The sentence This is mythology, not genealogy. does not stand on its own, and must be understood in its context. However, it certainly expresses the same notion as the aphorism, and does so in a rather succinct sentence.

history of an aphorism

These few references provide enough information to sketch a rough history of the aphorism. The idea that genealogies should be based on sources was first expressed by the Frenchman André Duchesne (1584 - 1640). The quote from The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record shows that the idea that genealogy is distinct from mythology dates back to at least the 19th century.

A succinct expression in Arthur L. Keith's 1929 review makes it clear that he assumes his reader to know that genealogy and mythology are not the same thing, and that presenting mythology as genealogy will not do. The quote from Noel C. Stevenson's 1989 book expresses the idea that genealogies not based on records should be regarded as mythology.
A closer study of many works would be needed to demonstrate how this notion evolved along with genealogical thinking, and that the idea expressed in the aphorism was well established by 1989.
The simple fact I want to call attention to is that even the 1989 work does not use the aphorism. The expressive power of the aphorism is such that it is hard to resist using it. Today, practically every genealogy author uses it, yet as recent as 1989, even a book about evidence in genealogy did not. That does not proof the aphorism came into existence after the book was published, but does suggest that it was not well-known yet.


It is pretty clear how the aphorism became popular.
In 1999, Nedra Dickman Brill posted the aphorism Genealogy without documentation is mythology. to the WVPENDLE mailing list. That brought it to the attention of all readers of that list. In 2001, Dan Hamrick was apparently reading through the WVPENDLE list, and posted it to the WVPIONEERS list, reaching all the readers on that list. That is how it started to spread over the Internet.
The September / October issue of Ancestry magazine published the aphorism as Genealogy without source documentation is mythology. In 2001, American Spirit published the original aphorism. That is how it started to spread outside the Internet.
As the web, which was started in 1991, grew in popularity, the difference between these two modes of communication became both less important and less clear. As imperfect as the google queries are, the resulting table still demonstrates quite convincingly that the aphorism became popular in the first decade of the 21st century.


So, it seems that the aphorism Genealogy without documentation is mythology. was not popular in the late 20th century yet, and started to spread around the turn of the millennium. Each of these early mailing list and magazine publications reached hundred or thousands of readers, and these readers naturally liked it so much, that the aphorism kept spreading from there.
The idea that you need sources for your genealogy is centuries old. The idea that genealogy and mythology are different from each other has been expressed in various way for more than a century already. It seems that the aphorism was only formulated in the later half of the 20th century. Yet, however recent that is, it is remarkable hard to find the source for this aphorism. It is an aphorism on sources, yet few authors cite a source for it, and those that do are likely to be misattribute it to someone they heard it form instead of the actual author.

Mary L. Henke

The most believable attribution I've found on either the Internet or the World-Wide Web is Rebecca Everett's 2004 message on the Jolley Family Genealogy Forum.
She notes that Genealogy without proof is Mythology. was the personal motto of the late genealogist Mary L. Henke. In private communication with me, Rebecca Everett has stated that she is quite sure that Mary L. Henke originated the aphorism, and may have been using it as her motto as early as the 1970s. Presumably others who knew Mary L. Henke will be able to provide additional evidence. It would be nice to remove all reasonable doubt, and recognise her as the creator of the aphorism.


I thank Nedra Dickmann Brill, Rebecca Everett and the Organization of American Historians for their assistance with this article. All errors are mine.