Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Don't rely on icons and stereotypes in historical research

An article in the latest edition of the Family Tree Magazine called, "Hazards of Histories" by John Philip Colletta got me thinking about some of the historical icons and stereotypes that affect my own area of the world and directly or indirectly the way I perceive history. As the Family Tree Magazine article points out, some of the icons and stereotypes have become so ingrained in our cultural context, we may not even be aware that they are icons and stereotypes.

Some of my grandchildren got an African Safari Camp for a present. When I was young, we got barns and farm animals or perhaps a fort with cowboys and Indians. But going with new world wide awareness, they got this elaborate "toy" camp complete with lions, elephants and a giraffe. Interestingly, they are got a large Saguaro cactus. The Saguaro cactus has become an icon of the West and by analogy anything wild and untamed. There is just one major problem, there are no Saguaro cactus in Africa. In fact, they only grow in the southern part of Arizona, a tiny bit of California and Northern Sonora, Mexico. How may times have you seen movies, pictures, cartoons or whatever, depicting the "desert" and including the iconic Saguaro? As a matter of fact, cactus are native to the Americas and there is only one species of cactus that has somehow migrated to Africa. In essence, there are no cactus in Africa.

Another icon of the West is the tumbleweed. There are even cartoon and movie characters named "Tumbleweed." Guess what? Tumbleweeds are a non-indigenous invasive plant from Russia! The first tumbleweed species, Salsola of the Amaranthaceae family, were likely imported from Asia late in the 19th Century. Wikipedia. Your ancestors in the 1800s would not have ever seen a tumbleweed.

One last example, this one from North America going East. It is extremely common to see Prickly Pear cactus (also called Beaver Tail cactus) in pictures of the Middle East. Opuntia (Prickly Pear and its relatives) are cactus and therefore native to the American continents. All of the cactus in the Middle East are new comers and now, invasive plants.

How does this relate to genealogy? We all come with a set of cultural stereotypes and icons. Things that we just "know" are true about the past. Sometimes it takes a lot of study and reading to break through this screen and haze of preconceived notions and really begin to understand someone who lived a hundred or two hundred or more years ago. Sometimes it is only through knowing your ancestors that you can find them. How did they live? How did they provide for themselves and their families? How did they worship? How did they survive hardship, oppression, disease or other troubles? What did they do for fun or entertainment? When you know the answers to these and hundreds of other questions, you will begin to lose yourself in the past and you will find the past will answer its own questions.

Genealogists talk of brick walls. Many times those brick walls are in our own minds because we don't know the people we are seeking. Can I imagine a Northern Arizona desert without tumbleweeds? or Tamarisk? or Computers? Do I see Saguaro cactus in Monument Valley? Do I see my ancestors doing things that they could not have done and saying things they could not have said? Just as children are not small adults, the past is not just a simplified extension of the present. We need to overcome our fixation on the present to understand and live in the past. Sometimes it is only by living in the past that we can find out what the past has to say to us today.


  1. This is an interesting and important point, James. So often our view of history is flawed by reliance on the icons and stereotypes you describe. In thirty years teaching US History I ran into far too many students who made a mistake that any genealogist would recognize right away. They said that their ancestors came to this country by way of Ellis Island right after the Civil War. Of course the Ellis Island’s immigration station wasn’t opened until 1892, so either their ancestors arrived later or didn’t come through Ellis Island. I encountered the same thing with Chinese students in the San Francisco Bay Area who said ancestors had come through Angel Island in the 1880s when Angel Island didn’t open until 1910. The reason for their confusion was obvious. These were the two best known most iconic immigration stations on their respective coasts. But their ancestors’ stories got a lot more interesting when the students began to look at what they really experienced.
    One of the things the increased interest in social history and oral history in the last fifty years has done is to make it possible to actually see what the experience of average people was really like at a particular time and place. They, in effect, allow us to take the Saguaro out of the Sahara as we try to understand our historical past.

  2. I love this statement, "Many times those brick walls are in our own minds..."!! I ran into that when I couldn't find a death certificate for my great-great-grandmother - long story, but it just never occurred to me that she hadn't died where she was buried...what was she doing, gasp, TRAVELING?!?!? Thanks for the great reminders in this post.