David O. McKay lecturer Jim Tueller shares how using primary sources to explore family history can give greater connection to ancestors
Written by
Haeley Van der Werf
Jim Tueller reads a book at his desk.
Image By
Chantal Hopper

Dr. Jim Tueller, associate professor of history at BYU–Hawaii, spoke about how to dig deeper into family history by utilizing primary sources, sharing personal stories and the words of other historians at the 2019 David O. McKay Lecture on Feb. 12 in the Cannon Activities Center.

In introducing Tueller, BYUH president John S. Tanner said, “Today we are adding another distinguished member of the faculty to this wonderful group of past lecturers. Dr. Tueller has consistently demonstrated what it means to be a David O. McKay lecturer. He has been nominated by faculty members and approved by the board of trustees.”

Tueller was then presented with a commemorative plaque and check before beginning his lecture.

Epistemology of history

Beginning his talk, Tueller said, “The primary sources we examine remind us that living people produce them. Even more so in family history, their features, their biology, their mannerisms reach down to us. They also connect us to siblings, who we are more alike than anyone else.

“We can do family history. We are doing it. Look for the primary sources. Read, examine, and analyze the sources carefully. Within the constraints of the past, imagine what your ancestors experienced … When we think historically, we do not just ask, ‘What happened?’ but also, ‘Why did it happen?’ which in this case comes down to human choices, mentalities, and emotions.”

Describing the nature of primary sources, Tueller said, “Tangible primary sources as surviving artifacts from the past help us answer epistemological questions. How do we know? We cannot just quote sources. We must analyze, use our imaginations and consider what others have thought.”

Emily McFadden, a freshman from Colorado majoring in communications, said this advice was especially meaningful to her. “I really liked how he talked about his ancestors and he said something about how even though we are separated by time, we can still understand the emotions they felt. It really helped me feel more connected to my ancestors.”

Tueller shared the words of archeologist Paul Veyne, who wrote, “Historical criticism has only one function: to answer the question asked of it by the historian: ‘I believe that this document teaches me this; may I trust it to do that?’”

Expanding on Veyne’s statement, Tueller said, “We rely on primary sources, judging reliability and analyzing information.”

Primary sources for Family History  

Tueller shared a list of names of some of his ancestors from the 19th century. He said how primary sources, such as marriage certificates and death records, can allow us to learn more about the family.

“What can primary sources about births, marriages, and deaths tell us about the past? Family reconstitution sounds really complicated. It’s not. It’s been a historical project with many contributors resulting in important insights into our ancestors’ past. By looking at primary sources we can find changes in continuities.”

Tueller then shared a second list of family names. He invited the audience to examine the difference between the two lists. Looking at the names, he pointed out how the first family only gave the children first names, but the second family gave the children first names and middle names.

He said the second list of names is the family of one of the sons from the first family. Through examining the names, Tueller described how he could figure out how the family converted to the Church, which in turn influenced how they named their children.

Tueller shared Carla Nappi’s explanation of examining primary sources. She said, “Paying attention is a kind of world creation. It is a way of moving through the world and activating parts of our environment in the process, identifying and creating objects and locations.”

Expanding on this thought, Tueller said, “Primary sources include artifacts from the past. Most elements of the past have gone where moth and rust doth corrupt. But those that survive can tell us about who produced it, why it was produced, and why it survived.”

Turn our hearts to the fathers

He continued, “I remind us we have an obligation to turn our hearts to the fathers. Thoughtfully consider their lives and analyze their past choices. Remembering our ancestors prepares us to meet God. Not only do we take their names to the temple, but we can also seek to know them and serve them.”

Knowing about our ancestors not only gives us more information, but also benefits us personally, according to Tueller. “I benefit from knowing how my ancestors’ lives fit in to the passage of time. As you saw with my primary source, we can learn much about them from past documents, bringing them together in both personal and analytical ways.”

Tueller explained why, “Students should develop an awareness, even an appreciation, of cultural and human diversity. At least the student should not automatically assume the foreign is similar and the exotic is wrong. At best this awareness will deepen the student’s sense of human possibilities, and thus the student’s own humanity.

“The stories we tell reflect the lives we live and the hopes we hope. Look for the stories, and find the narratives within them. Stories told from the evidence of primary sources represent the past. We present the past again.”

Date Published
February 20, 2019
Last Edited
August 5, 2019