(Note: As always, we receive no financial benefit or consideration for any product or service we review/recommend/discuss here. Everything we discuss is our opinion alone, and we talk about it because we use it.)
When we initially started this blog, one of the first topics we covered was our standard genealogy toolkit (How to: Getting started researching your family tree) that included everything we though people would need to successfully start getting serious with this hobby, and ease folks into more advanced work. Our suggestions included Tony Burrough’s Black Roots as well Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence Explained, and now Kenyatta D. Berry’s The Family Tree Toolkit is a strong addition to that list. In addition to being an essential resource, it’s a wonderful read.
The Family Tree Toolkit finds that balance of storytelling, emotional connection, and practical research examples in a way we can only envy.
From a practical standpoint, her detailed list of research resources (often state-by-state) is pretty consistently spot on for a deep dive into each subject. It’s so complete, and as hobbyists who have spent nearly 8 years doing this work, we found so many additional resources it took much longer than it should have to finish the book. We’d swear that when we read the next section, we WOULDN’T dive into one of the suggested sources for that section. We’d just make notes and come back. It never worked, and we’d spend the next 2-3 days checking out new sources! If we had this book 8 years ago, and we took the time to plan our research back then, we would be SO much further on this journey. We found a lot just doing searches and lucking into things, but if we targeted the correct sources from the beginning, it would have been so much more effective, and we’re now consulting The Family Tree Toolkit as we continue our research.
The risk with these printed texts that catalog research sources is that they will grow stale with time, and the book loses it’s value, but each of the resources here seem to have been picked to be resistant to aging. Sites like familysearch.org will be around as long as the LDS church is around (essentially, forever), and other sites tend to be big, well funded, and the collections listed are more likely to grow over time. It’s a better bet than not that the book will be an essential reference guide well into the time Ms. Berry issues her first revision.
But another reason to not focus on the nature of reference aging is that the personal journey stories and examples of Ms. Berry’s work would have made this an essential read on their own. The Family Tree Toolkit finds that balance of storytelling, emotional connection, and practical research examples in a way we can only envy. Not that our passion is ever waning, but there is a thread of deep truth that runs through her stores that not only reminds us why we’re doing this work, it re-inspired us to make the effort to make physical connections to the data we’re gathering.
For example, take this passage where she talks about her first trip to an ancestral home in Madison County, Virginia:
“As I explored the grounds, I looked out to the neighboring property and realized that I was walking in the footsteps of my ancestors. More than 130 years ago, they had stood where I was standing, and as I closed my eyes, I could almost hear their voices in the distance.”
That was a moving section that stuck with me for days…the profound nature of smelling the air your ancestors smelled, felt the same earth together under our feet as they did, had our heart filled with the same joy theirs must have looking at the same view we’re seeing. About a week later as we drove through my paternal ancestral home of Antigo, Wisconsin and passed my Great Grandfather’s E. A. Morse’s office….driving up Superior Street and coming to the corner of First Avenue, where he would have walked 1000’s of times on his way home, passing the same houses that still stand, the old service station that is right where its always been, up to their house which I still remember fondly, there’s a deep feeling of connection and home I shared with someone I only know from photographs, documents, and family stories. And I immediately was thinking of passages from Ms. Berry’s book.
Beyond that, thinking of my wife who is also descended from enslaved Africans, I understood the impact the lack of that connection she must feel. How part of this work, for her, is to find that natural connection to history and family. Seeking that profound moment she described has literally refocused our efforts to prove those links, and then stand on the same ground my wife’s family stood on.
Kenyatta D. Berry’s combination of a great compilation of research sources and deep, moving personal storytelling, makes The Family Tree Toolkit an essential part of our work, and our library.