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

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Swimming in the stream of history

Some of us older folks have lived enough history to have an appreciation for the impact of events and circumstances on our lives. It seems to me that many genealogical researchers are so busy swimming in that stream of history, they tend to ignore it. They fail to see the impact past events may have had on their family. I have written before about the effect of ignoring wars and such but it is not just huge national and international events that affect families but also the very local historic events.

My maternal grandfather's family is a good example of the impact of an international event. The family seemed to move around a lot and I finally found out that they lived in a series of rental houses after losing their primary residence to foreclosure. Now why do you suppose this was happening? Well, do you think that living during the 1930s in the depth of the Great Depression may have had an impact? I have handed down comments about my grandfather's money management ability, but I might also guess that he wasn't making all that much money during the depression as a newspaper reporter.

Local events can also have the same type of impact on a family. For example, my paternal Great-grandmother had twin boys and one of them was killed in a tragic accident at the age of nineteen. From the record, she also lost a child in childbirth or shortly thereafter. She never seemed to me to be a very happy person and looking at those and other tragedies in her life, such as losing a husband at a relatively young age, may have explained a lot of what I observed. Unfortunately, most of these facts were unknown to me because people didn't talk to children about such things.

Now project those types of experiences back into the past. How many small and great historical incidents went into making your family what it is today? What happened to make them move? Why did they change from farming to cattle or whatever? Why did they move to the city? Why did they leave the homeland and come to a different country? All of these questions, when answered, help to explain and give life to your ancestral story. It is always amazing to my how few genealogists have read a county history of the counties they are researching. It is not uncommon for me to point out several county histories to researchers who are surprised to learn they exist. As a side note, I suggest that you look at the Research Wiki for links to county histories.

One of the most valuable aids to integrating your research into the local, state and national history is doing a timeline of events. Some of the genealogical database programs will automatically do this for each person in your file and also overlay national and international events. It seems almost elementary, that if your family lived in the United States during the years of 1860 to 1866, that some family members might have been involved in the U.S. Civil War. But it is always surprising to me how many people ignore something as obvious as this. Every area of the United States and every country of the world has some of the same types of great historical events that affected nearly every family in country.

More than just the interest value of learning about your family's place in history, is the research value. Events create records. Anytime something big happens to a country, state or region, there are unique records that were created that might contain a more detailed record of your particular family. For example, in my own family, the Tanners lived in a small agricultural community in Northern Arizona as subsistence farmers. They could barely exist on the poor land and strained water supplies of this desolate area. Beginning in 1880, the railroad started across this stretch of Arizona Territory. It was the salvation of the communities by providing first work for the young men of the community and second, giving access to less expensive supplies that kept the communities alive. Ignoring something such as the impact of the railroad is not just a historical problem, it ignores all the records accumulated about the railroad construction and those who participated.

Think about your own family and start reading some history books today.


  1. Great post. Always thought my grandma was cranky. Maybe losing her first 2 boys and then losing 4 or 5 more while raising 7 was a factor. Found out she spent a couple of years in bed after the last child. And I'm kind of kranky over nothing!

  2. This is so true! Town and county historical society's are goldmines of genealogical information.Always good to contact them and ask what things they have in the possession.They will often do research for very reasonable fees as well, a godsend if you live far from them.