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

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Chesnuts? Fire? White Christmas?

Skibbereen 1847 by Cork artist James Mahony (1810–1879), commissioned by Illustrated London News, 1847 
One of the most overlooked issues in genealogy is the cultural context of our ancestors' lives. While listening to some of the mainly commercial Christmas music, I realized once again the importance of investigating the cultural and historical context. The music referred to "chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Jack Frost nipping on your nose..." followed by a paean to a white Christmas. I have lived most of my life in the desert Southwest of the United States. This year has been warmer than usual and temperatures are expected to be above 80 degrees today and all this next week, warm summer weather in some parts of the world. We don't have snow, cold or anything approximating those conditions for Christmas. We have palm trees, outdoor activities like hiking in the desert and don't wear coats, much less worry about Jack Frost.

The point is this, we live in a world of a uniform predigested society, where everyone is presented with a uniformly bland variety of culture coming from our big screen HDTV and our iPhones and iPods. None of our ancestors lived in our cultural world. Their lives, their attitudes, their cultural surroundings were as different as we live today in our technological world that most of us cannot imagine how they lived, much less how they survived.

My Great-grandfather and his family lived in a small town on the real edge of civilization. They had no running water, no electricity, no communication, no radios, no newspapers, nothing but paper and pencils and horses to carry messages to their families in other towns. They owned almost nothing but livestock and land. There was nothing to buy locally, everything they ate, wore or used had to be made or carried in by wagon. Once they left their parents in southern Utah, they never saw them again in this life. 

Why is this something important to know? Twenty miles was a full days' journey. Our ancestors, depending on the time and location, may have lived very isolated lives. If we learn about the cultural and historical context in which they lived, many seeming mysteries will turn out to be not only solvable, but keys to extending the lines to other members of the family.

Why was my Great-grandfather and his family living in a small community in Northern Arizona? When you answer that question, you will discover, as I have, a rich cultural and historical heritage that leads to a tremendous amount of collateral information about my family. This principle applies all the way back to the 1620s in Massachusetts and all the way back to England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. It applies whether your family came from Italy or Indonesia, South Africa or Estonia, Africa or Australia.

Where and how our ancestors lived is the key to understanding them and their families. It is also the key to finding them. Have you read the history of the county where your ancestors lived? Do you know what world and local events may have shaped their lives? If your family left Ireland in 1850 would you know why? Look at the print at the head of this article for a clue.

Where does genealogy end and life begins? The answer is genealogy is life and history and culture and reality. It is not names and dates and numbers. It is not a checklist of events. Unless you can envision the sweep of your ancestors' historical context you are missing, not just the opportunity to further your ancestral lines, but the whole meaning and reason for learning about them in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. James - I didn't realize so many genealogists overlook the cultural context of their ancestor's lives. Your statement is so interesting and surprising to me. Personally I can't imagine one without the other. I know everyone is different, but for me the cultural aspect of things is a large part of why I do genealogy. I like the mystery-solving part of the process, but if I was just looking for names and dates I honestly don't know if I would be bothered. At the very least, my research would move along at a faster clip than it does now.

    Thanks so much for the thought provoking post.