Judy Russell (the Legal Genealogist) at NERGC


I have the privilege of interviewing Judy Russell, one of the keynote speakers at NERGC. I knew who she was long before I had the chance to meet her and listen to her speak. You may know her as a legal expert who uses that expertise to bridge the past and add historical context to her ancestors, and teaches us to do the same. You may also know her as a DNA expert. I know her as a fellow social historian/genealogist and look forward to meeting her again.

I met her in person at the Massachusetts Genealogical Council annual meeting a couple of years ago. One of her talks involved a murder case in the 1800s based on a new form (at the time) of medicine and potential medical malpractice. Since medicine in everyday life is one of my special interests (and the topic of my master’s thesis) I was hooked.

Here are my questions and her responses. I love how her humor shows through, one of the many reasons she is such a great speaker. I hope that you will come to NERGC to hear her and many other experts cover a variety of topics related to genealogy, and my favorite, bringing our ancestors to live through social history.

1) What sparked your interest in family history, and how did you come to combine law and family history?

My mother’s family is mostly Scots-Irish — that means they’re storytellers. And I grew up sitting out under the trees at my grandparents’ farm listening to the stories. Finally I realized it was time to start seeing whether any of the stories were true! Combining law and family history was simply the natural outgrowth of my formal training as a lawyer and the discovery, as a genealogist, that just about every record we use is impacted by its legal context.

2) How do you find the material and/or interesting cases you use for a blog post or lecture?

First and foremost, I’m a reader: I read books and articles and blog posts and Facebook posts and anything I can get my hands on. Some things are sent by folks who read my blog or who know I have a legal background and need help in understanding a record in their own families; some things I just stumble across. The reality is that every set of records we might ever look at will have its own set of stories — we just need to read to find them.

3) What is your favorite story that you have come across, either from your own family or someone else’s family?

One? One favorite story? For someone with Scots-Irish ancestry? That’s like asking a mother who her favorite child is! I’ve never met a story I didn’t love, and some of them are even true! (Well, at least partially. The other thing about the Scots-Irish is that we never let the truth interfere with a good story.) If I had to pick just one, I’d probably have to say it was the discovery that I qualify for membership in the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. To qualify, you have to be able to prove your ancestor lived in the Republic of Texas. Mine was indicted by the Republic of Texas. For bigamy. (I love my family.)

4) Why is adding social context to family history research so important?

Because without social context family history is just a set of begats: John and Mary begat James. The social context tells us what lives John and Mary led, how they struggled to get where they got, what it was like when James was born. What they wore, what they ate, how they lived. It’s the stories that bring our families to life, and the social context helps us tell those stories.

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