Family history stories

The mysterious origins of that genealogy poem

This week, I came across this post and shared it, thinking this is so me.
French Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan

On closer examination, this quote is a photo of a door or window, and quite possibly posted on the offices of the French Canadian Heritage Society. But where did it come from? Like a good genealogist, I first turned to Google for some answers. And there were lots of answers… but perhaps not a lot of right answers.

The prose poem has been variously attributed to Tom Dunn (editor), Melody Hall (editor), Della M. Cummings Wright (author), Della’s granddaughter Della JoAnn McGinnis Johnson (rewritten), and that great provider of all works of literature we don’t know the provenance for, Anonymous. It’s been quoted in dozens of books because it so perfectly encapsulates how many genealogists feel about their obsession. It’s so good in fact that genealogists have taken time out from their genealogical search to find the provenance for this poem: see for example Harold Sparks and Anita May Draper.

Personally, I give kudos to Della JoAnn McGinnis Johnson, whose post here claim authorship, and whose work also includes A Grandmother’s TaleHere’s a version attributed to Tom Dunn.

But the year? That’s another question. Take this, for example:

We Are the Chosen –by Della M. Cumming, 1943; edited by Melody Hull

Or this:

Written by Della M. Cummings Wright

Rewritten by her granddaughter Dell Jo Ann McGinnis Johnson

Edited and Reworded by Tom Dunn, (in) 1943.

Bob Dunn aka “The Storyteller” of Houston, TX., Author

In 1943, Della M. Cumming was a year old, according to her family tree. Did she rewrite it later, or did Tom Dunn write the original in ’43? My take is the whole “1943” idea was a total guess, the way that families guess about dates they can’t remember.

Here is the whole poem, which I have edited for format and grammar.


We are the chosen. In each family there is one who seems called to find the ancestors – to put flesh on their bones and make them live again, to tell the family story and to feel that somehow they know and approve.

To me, doing genealogy is not a cold gathering of facts but, instead, breathing life into all who have gone before.

We are the story tellers of the tribe. All tribes have one.

We have been called by our genes. Those who have gone before cry out to us: tell our story. So we do. In finding them, we somehow find ourselves. How many graves have I stood before now and cried? I have lost count. How many times have I told the ancestors you have a wonderful family you would be proud of us? How many times have I walked up to a grave and felt somehow there was love there for me?

I cannot say.

It goes beyond just documenting facts. It goes to who am I and why do I do the things I do. It goes to seeing a cemetery about to be lost forever to weeds and indifference and saying I can’t let this happen. The bones here are bones of my bone and flesh of my flesh. It goes to doing something about it. It goes to pride in what our ancestors were able to accomplish. How they contributed to what we are today. It goes to respecting their hardships and losses, their never giving in or giving up, their resoluteness to go on and build a life for their family. It goes to deep pride that they fought to make and keep us a Nation.

It goes to a deep and immense understanding that they were doing it for us. That we might be born who we are. That we might remember them. So we do. With love and caring and scribing each fact of their existence, because we are them and they are us. So, as a scribe is called, I tell the story of my family. It is up to that one called in the next generation to answer the call and take their place in the long line of family storytellers.

That is why I do genealogy, and that is what calls those young and old to step up and put flesh on the bones.

2 thoughts on “The mysterious origins of that genealogy poem

  1. Author Della Maxine Cummings Wright 1922-2001 married Elisha Jack Wright
    Daughter Sally Darnell Wright McGinnis 1945-1999 married William Thomas McGinnis
    Rewritten by her granddaughter Della Joann McGinnis Johnson 1962-living
    Edited and Reworded by Tom Dunn, 1943.

    I believe this is the family line you referenced and the dates make more sense.
    Regards, Diane


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