Thursday, June 16, 2016

Why Genealogy Matters

There are those who do not understand why we "do genealogy" and that's alright. It is not everyone's cup of tea. But to treat it like nothing more than the study of names, dates, and places to add branches to our family tree is to dismiss a pastime of cultural significance.

The people we come from - all of our ancestors - had a hand in shaping the world we have today. Some did it in significant ways, perhaps by ruling an empire or sailing across an ocean to establish a new world. Some did it in smaller ways, like my grandfather who was one of the construction workers on the local college where I grew up. But be your ancestors butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, explorers, or conquerors, they lived in a time and place we can only know through books, paintings, music, and the words of those who lived then and there.

In my opinion, genealogy and history are inextricably linked. History tells us what happened and who made it happen, and genealogy tells us if these people left children, grandchildren, and others who might have made a continued mark on this world.

Of course, when cannot deny the personal significance of the study of family history. It is interesting to see when a family endured it's hardest times and how that fits into an historic or cultural context, such as the years of and following the Great Depression or perhaps the Civil War. If I go through my family history and match up the stories of hardship with historic events, you can bet there was something major going on at the time that contributed to my family having problems with family, finances, and health.

So if we sit down at our computers and think genealogy is about typing in a few words and hitting on a family tree that gives us 20 generations of our ancestors, then we are missing so much!

At its best, genealogy is an active endeavor. I don't just mean writing a letter to the Town Hall where great-grandma was born to get her birth record. I don't just mean taking the time to visit a church where several generations of your family were baptized, married, and honored upon their death.

I mean integrating the fabric of their lives with the threads of history, and caring about the links between the two. I mean realizing the War of 1812 was significant to your ancestors and, thus, the Preserve the Pensions Project is something meaningful for you to support. Or perhaps realizing the town where your family lived, worked, and died generation after generation is in need of help to keep it viable. Maybe deciding that because a website such as Family Search has given so much to you, you want to give something back by volunteering to transcribe records.

When someone tells you family history is not a "real" field of study, that it's not "academic" because it's not an objective examination of past events and the sequence and patterns thereof, consider this:

History didn't just happen. People made history and those people are our ancestors.

Copyright (c) 2016 Wendy L. Callahan