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

Friday, April 26, 2013

Is Genealogy History or is All History Genealogy?

When was the last time you took a class on the history of the country you live in? When was the last time you took a class on the history of the country your ancestors came from? Have you ever read a book on either subject? If you live in the United States or the United Kingdom or Australia or France or Canada or Poland or any other country, what do you know about the history of your country?

If genealogy is that branch of history that involves the study for the determination of family relationships (See Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2000, page 8) then doesn't it follow that genealogists should know their own history?

My brother is a college history professor and is always commenting on the dismal lack of knowledge of the general population about their own country's history. I find it interesting that most basic genealogy courses virtually ignore history. Although there are notable exceptions, most genealogical conference offerings focus on methodology and not specifically on history. Is it generally assumed that genealogists are also historians and already know the history of their respective countries? I have personally frequently observed genealogical researchers who had only the barest sort of idea that there was a history component to genealogy (or is it the other way around).

If you find a relative born in the United States that lived in the middle 1800s, do you automatically think U.S. Civil War or does that only come after you have researched and found few records? Do you think of the Great Depression and what that might have meant to your ancestor families? What about the effects of World War I and World War II on your ancestors? What effect do you think the wars had on where you might find their records and what records you might find? What do you know about migration patterns? Where did your ancestors pay their taxes and who collected those taxes?

In many cases, trying to find your ancestors may be impossible without a clear understanding of very local history. When was the last time you read a book about the history of the county where your family lived? Have you read a book about the Army or Navy unit your ancestor served in? Unfortunately, I have found that my suggestions to researchers to look to the history of the area they are researching has frequently fallen on deaf ears.

Too many people, perhaps conditioned by high school level history classes, think history is all about dates. Of course, dates are important. I often remember an entry in the FamilySearch Family Tree claiming that one of my ancestors was born in Cottonwood, Utah in 1795. I guess I was surprised to learn that I had Native American ancestors. If you don't understand the point of that comment, perhaps you need to know a little more about U.S. history!

The current hot topic in genealogy is apparently stories and photographs. What are stories about our ancestors? History, plain and simple. If you felt that the history classes you had in school were boring, perhaps that was more a reflection of the teacher's ability than the subject. It may also have been your own lack of interest. Jorge Augustin Nicolas de Santayana y Borras is often quoted (and misquoted) when he said,  "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"

See Santayana, George. The Life of Reason; Or, The Phases of Human Progress. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1905.

I think I would paraphrase this quote for genealogists as "Those who cannot remember or who do know their past are condemned to do unrewarding research over and over again." 


  1. I want my "master" family history repository to include historical local, national and world events, people, places... history completely integrated with my family history where applicable. This is something either our traditional genealogical software applications do not support well or perhaps it is something genealogists do not want to track in their family databases.

    And, what do you think of Wikipedia, for example, which contains numerous types of entries (people, places, events, etc) supporting genealogical links/references--not just a hyperlink to other family members, but proper genealogical references from which charts, among other things, could be automatically generated from the content?

  2. James:
    This is my take on the issue:


  3. I just finished a course in "The Last 250 Years of World History" taught online by a professor at University of Virginia through "Coursera". It was 14 weeks long and a real in depth look at history and how it has changed the world and he looked at what if? options. What if leaders had made other decisions? I would recommend something like that to any genealogist to give a better perspective or why people moved as they did or how to get a better idea of where they might have moved to.