RootsTech 2014


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

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Does Time Matter? What do know about it?

Genealogists' preoccupation with dates is generally very nearsighted. Does it really matter whether a date is off by a day, a month or even a year? What matters more than the exact date is the place and the context of the time that the event occurred and many researchers, fortunately not all, ignore the time context of their ancestors as if they lived in bubble protected by their pedigree. Wars, plagues, famine, pestilence, genocide, migrations, all are like dreams in the night, forgotten by the researchers under the harsh sunlight of dates and names on a pedigree chart. Never mind that the program they are using will generate a wonderful timeline, that feature may as well not exist.

I guess this issue comes from a discussion about one of the class member's ancestors that moved from Texas to Arkansas in 1860 and then moved on again in 1866 or so. When I asked what was happening during this time period, the entire class just sat there staring at me. Of course, it was the kind of question that teachers are not supposed to ask; those questions with obvious answers. The only problem was that asking the question in the context of a discussion about genealogy was far from obvious. Even when I mentioned the U.S. Civil War to get over the issue, there was still no realization on the part of the class membes that the War would have made any difference to the movements of the ancestor. The fact that the ancestor or members of the family may have been involved in the War never came up in the discussion. How can you ignore the Civil War? Or World War I or World War II? Many researchers do this and more but with time frames and countries where they would not even be aware of the conditions of the time when their ancestors lived and died.

Let's all of us read a little more history and a little less of pedigree charts and dates. I would guess that I am more sensitive to this topic than many would be, since I had more classes on military history at the University of Utah than any other one subject. As you move back in time, what do you know about the conditions of your ancestors and what they had to deal with during the time they lived. I know there historians/genealogists out there that can recite every war those in America ever fought, but the vast majority of the researchers never get to the point of considering the history of the country, the county or the town where their ancestors lived. This isn't a rant, this is a statement of fact.

For example, my Great-grandfather was born in San Bernardino, California in 1852 where almost his entire family and many of his relatives had settled. In 1857, they left California and moved to Beaver, Utah. Why? This is an easy question to answer. It took me less than five seconds to do a Google search on the "Utah War." If you don't know how the two events are connected, perhaps you are missing something similar in your own line. It is entirely possible that people would make, what seems to be, totally random moves from one part of the country to another or from one country to another, but it is usually the case that there was a very good reason for their move. It could have been something as simple as the Irish Potato Famine which lasted from 1845 to 1852 and coincides with the time period of the immigration of my Irish ancestors to America. They show up in Philadelphia from Canada in about 1852.

Does time matter? It certainly does and ignorance of the times in which our ancestors lived makes them seem like cartoon figures on a screen acting in strange unpredictable ways. Just as recent historical events have shaped our own lives, our ancestors did not live in a vacuum. They had to deal with recessions, depressions and economic collapse. They had to face harsh weather that killed their crops. They had plenty of personal tragedies, but they also had to live through national and international turmoil and upheaval.

The solution is almost too simple. Use the timeline built into your genealogical database program. If that seems too difficult, go to your local library and find a few history books about the places where your ancestors lived and read them from cover to cover. Maybe some of that history will start to affect how you view the history of your own family. Maybe those random movements weren't so random after all.


  1. Interesting (or even disturbing!) your comment on the Civil War.

    For what it's worth, I have the next stage of the same problem, but from an unexpected source, perhaps... My GG GF's younger brother, Robert Constable Bruce (1841-1924) emigrated from Dundee, Scotland, to San Francisco in 1863 (via Cape Horn). Not the most obvious time for someone to emigrate to America. I can only imagine his move had something to do with someone spotting a commercial opportunity, possibly to do with Dundee's textiles - he joined an import / export business in SF and ended up a partner in it, so he was certainly talented in business (a trait his elder brother, my GG GF, did not share going bankrupt - or nearly so - twice).

  2. Very true. [And regarding your class' reaction inability to think of the Civil War, or to understand it's impact even after they knew it...rather disturbing!]

    In my day/real job as an Administrative Law Judge (Unemployment Insurance cases), I've found that context often makes the story. Knowing the context of what was happening always informs a credibility call, and often is a key factor in making the decision. That's probably why, for me, even though I'm just a beginning family historian, the historical context of the documented and dated actions is a huge part of the story. I always try to understand what was happening in the world and in my ancestors corner of the world before writing up a blog post to tell my family and friends what I've discovered about a particular ancestor. I'm reading more history books than little wiggling leaves! I sometimes get them from the library and inter-library loan, and sometimes from Google Ebooks (a great source for old books out of copyright); books on WWII I already own. Finding out the context is allows me to make a dry heap of facts into a person I can tell a story about.