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

Friday, August 16, 2013

Variances in Time and Space

We have a tendency, as genealogists, to think of our ancestors' lives in terms of discrete events instead of as a continuum beginning before birth and lasting after death. For example, we focus on events such as birth, marriage, employment, death and others seeking exact dates and substantiation from sources. We then carefully fill in the blanks in our database program and provide a citation to the source. Our task is over. We have filled in another blank and can move on. Except life isn't made up of discrete events. People live short or long lives, but they are people who lived lives every day until they died.

By focusing on discrete events, we open ourselves to criticism that we are not interested in "family history" but only in names and dates. But more importantly, by failing to view our ancestors in the context of their lives, we open the door to mis-identification and the inability to find our ancestors' progenitors. We sometimes refer to this inability to see our ancestors in context as a "brick wall." Thereby transferring our own limitations in viewing the larger picture to an unspecified external force that is thereby somehow preventing us from finding our ancestors.

As an illustration, in a class recently, I referred to the following list of wars fought in America from colonial times to the time of the American Revolution:

  • King Phillip's War 1675-1676
  • King William's War 1689-1697
  • Queen Anne's War 1702-1713 ( War of Spanish Succession)
  • King George's War 1744-1748 (War of Austrian Succession)
  • French and Indian War 1756-1763 (Seven Years War)
Of course there are genealogists who are fine historians and others that do exhaustive searches, but the average high school or even college graduate likely has never heard of the majority of these wars and would have no idea whether or not his or her ancestors lived near to the war zone or participated in the wars in anyway. There was no one in the class who had any idea that these American wars were ever fought except possibly the French and Indian War. Of course, some of these so-called wars had very limited involvement by Americans, but I find that many genealogists who claim to be unable to find their ancestors are lacking in basic history. Other than the American War Between the States (Civil War) and the World Wars, most people, genealogists included would find it difficult to name any other wars and the years they were fought. 

Every person who lived in the last 500 years created a cloud of record sources that followed them throughout the life and after death. Granted, the further back in time you go, the more difficult it is to get a grasp on this record cloud, but the cloud exists nonetheless. As we approach the 20th Century, the clouds become filled with hundreds of possible records such as the categories listed on many of the major pages in the FamilySearch Research Wiki. See the United States article for an example of some of the types of records that can attach to an individual during his or her lifetime. 

Ignorance is curable. For a nominal effort in time, anyone can read as many history books as they would like for free online. The FamilySearch Library just finished adding over 100,000 of them, completely digitized and free to download or read online. 

If you find yourself in the category of those who are facing a "brick wall" start reading. Learn about all the possible records you may have missed. Try investigating the relatives, friends and neighbors of your ancestor. Make sure you are looking in the right place by reviewing the possible boundary changes in the jurisdictions your ancestor lived in. Find out about the history. Stop looking for names and dates and look for living people who spent a lifetime on this earth. 

1 comment:

  1. Re: "discrete events" James, I recently made the point that those events are all that a finite of evidence can substantiate (

    Filling in the gaps (or rather 'joining the dots') requires a mixture of logic and conjecture.

    Looking at event-based history is a natural consequence of the evidence, and doesn't mean that we're only interested in only names and dates.