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

Friday, January 2, 2015

Genealogy is history and all history is genealogy

Sometimes I think we forget that we are dealing with history when we start investigating our ancestry. I am of the opinion that all history is really genealogy in disguise. I was reading what turned out to be a very interesting book.

McCullough, David. The Path Between the Seas The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. Touchstone Books, 2001.

I found this book to be interesting because of certain facts about my own background. From 1970 to 1972, I worked as an intelligence analyst for the United States Army in the Canal Zone, now part of the country of Panama. My job was to know everything I could about the history and current events in Central and South America, including Panama. In essence I spent eight or more hours a day reading, studying and writing about this region. 

The original edition of the David McCullough book was published in 1977, just a few years after I left the Canal Zone. Now, 43 years after I left the Canal Zone, I returned to a detailed history of the construction of the Panama Canal. The footnotes and citations of sources in this book are extensive. They include many more sources than were available to me at the time I was doing research for the U.S. Army. As a side note, there is a fair amount of what we would call genealogical material in the book, but that is not really my main point. 

Let's just say that the story I knew about the creation of the Panama Canal and the story told in the extensive book written only a few short years after I left Panama are noteworthy. When we live something, we get a different picture than is given by a historical perspective. Of course, I had a different view of the history of the Canal than David McCullough since I lived there for two years. But from a historical perspective, the resources he had far outweighed the amount of information provided by the limited research I could do in the small library of materials available from the Army. 

This was long before the advent of the Internet or even computers. We did all our research "by hand" if you will. As I read the McCullough book, I encountered an entirely different perspective and a lot of facts than I had at the time in Panama. In fact, my view of the Canal and other events changed somewhat dramatically from reading the book. However, I am fairly sure that the book would not have had the same impact had I found it and read it back in 1977. This fact was compounded by the later developments when control of the Panama Canal was turned over to Panama in 1999 and the Canal Zone was abandoned by the United States. 

Now why is this pertinent to genealogical research? As I have investigated my own family and as I get older and older, I learn that many of the impressions I got from living my life were mainly acquired with a very limited access to information. I find that many of the facts that I learned while young are gross mis-impressions of what really happened. The single reason for this is the huge amount of original source material I have accumulated since my youth and the fact that this same material was not available to me at the time I was growing up. 

One aspect of this personal history is something I have mentioned a few times previously. That is my impressions of my ancestors practice of plural marriage, often called polygamy. I also realize that many of the attitudes I encounter about this subject are based on a total lack of historical perspective and knowledge about the subject. In the case of polygamy, as is true about the Panama Canal, it is all too easy to have either a very negative or mildly positive attitude about the subject without knowing even the barest minimum of the actual history as recorded in the huge number of research sources available. 

What I find today is that many, yes, far too many genealogists or would-be family historians are looking at the history of their family through a peephole rather than seeing the larger picture available through historical sources that are readily available. Adding traditional family stories to this situation is like poking a few more peepholes. 

If you open the window of history and let its light shine on your genealogy, perhaps you will have some (many) of your cherished, preconceived and traditional views on your own ancestry change. In doing this, you may find some very uncomfortable facts about your own family that you would rather not have known. But at the same time, you will also begin to understand the relationship between historical research and genealogy and just perhaps, you will stop viewing you family through your personal peephole and get a large picture window instead. 

One current example of what is happening with the historical perspective in my own family and many others, is the current project of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to publish its entire inventory of historical records pertaining to the Prophet Joseph Smith. Recently created a link allowing people to search for references to their own ancestors in these documents, many of which are being made available for the first time. The website, which is part of is entitled, "Explore the early days of the Church in The Joseph Smith Papers." This is an area of history that has been the subject of massive amounts of mis-information in the past and continuing into the present. Some of the stories that have been repeated about the early history are now refuted by the historical documents being published. Other stories are being confirmed, but the overall effect is to add a picture window to the history and also the genealogy of my own ancestors' experiences. 

I would suggest that such picture windows now exist for many of those who would like to think of themselves as experienced genealogists, but are still looking at history through a peephole. 

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