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

Sunday, September 30, 2018

How to Start Learning History for Genealogists (and everyone else too)

If you obtained a college or university degree in history, where would you go to find a job in the United States? Clearly, many employers are simply looking for a "college degree" and don't really care about the subject matter studied, but if you wanted to pursue a career in history, what would you do? If you look at the list of suggested jobs for those with a history degree, most of them assume that you would seek additional training in some other pursuit or teach history in high school or become an elementary school teacher.

The reality of today's school systems is that history, as a subject, is not being taught at all. It has been replaced by "social studies" which consists mostly of propaganda about how minorities have been treated since the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620. Children all know about Martin Luther King, Jr. but have never heard of Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. If you want an interesting experience, ask to see a middle school student's history book.

This is not a new situation. I did have an American History class in high school and some history in grade school, but my high school class never got past the end of the Civil War and most of the history I had in grade school was Arizona history because that is what we studied in Arizona. There is a distinct opposition in the American school systems to teaching world history at all and even if world history is taught, the emphasis is on Western Civilization, not the world.

Ask yourself, when was the last time you learned about the history of Africa or Southeast Asia? In my opinion, one of the reasons why the U.S. Government was able to fight a war in South Vietnam was the dismal lack of any knowledge among Americans about the history of that part of the world. How many people know or knew that the U.S. was supporting French foreign domination of the area and not the interests of those people living in Vietnam? You might want to read what happened at the 1954 Geneva Conference for a start.

How does this affect the pursuit of genealogy? Well, genealogy is history albeit a very specific version of history dealing with particular families. But these families lived and died and were part of the "history" of their country and the world. I find that most people cannot tell me even what religion their ancestors believed in or what political divisions were in force at the time they lived. Both of these "facts" are important in identifying and locating documents about ancestral families. Some of the most common "brick wall" issues in genealogical research are instigated as a result of unsupported assumptions about ancestral families that have no basis in history or geography.

I have commonly used the boat floating in a lake analogy for those who do not consider or even know about the background history and geography, including political geography, of the areas where their ancestors lived.

Genealogical research without a significant knowledge of the history and the geography of where events in your ancestors' lives occurred is like sitting in a boat on a lake with a rifle and shooting into the water hoping to hit a fish when you don't even know if there are any fish in the water.

Where do you start? Well, who are are interested in finding at the moment? Let's suppose that your ancestor came from Europe in the mid-1800s and appears in Maryland. You might think to begin research in the country of origin, but common genealogical methodology dictates that you begin research in the country of arrival. So what do you know about Maryland history? Wait a minute. Your records show that his descendants said he or she was from "Maryland." Where were they living? In one recent case I have been researching, the known family was living in Mississippi and had a "tradition" that the family came from Maryland. You need to start with research in the last verifiable place where an event occurred in that particular family line. Not back in the place where they may have come from. So what do you know about the history, geography, and political boundary changes in Mississippi? Where would you go to find that information?

What I do is start with examining the county boundary changes associated with the times when the events occurred. What do I mean by "events?" Births, deaths, land purchases, censuses, school records, etc. Interestingly, when I work through this with people I am helping, I sometimes have to start with them and their parents because none of the other information is sufficiently documented to be reliable.

To start, look at maps. Google Maps is a good place to begin. Also, look for the places in Wikipedia and read the available history on that website. From there, start doing research online search for "the history of..." and go from there to books and other records. If you are like me, you will probably find that there is a degree of confusion about the places, dates, and appropriate jurisdictions in what has already been recorded about your family. Don't be surprised.


  1. I know that you are a Mayflower descendant, but why do you continue to imply that this country started with the Pilgrims in 1620. The English established the first permanent colony at Jamestown in Virginia in 1607. The first Africans arrived in 1619, which was also the first year of that an elected legislature met. Come visit Jamestown next summer when we celebrate the 400th anniversary of both historic events. Nearby Berkeley Plantation claims the 1st Thanksgiving actually occurred there in 1619. I agree with you that history is of dying interest, and I'm afraid that Colonial WIlliamsburg, the largest historical museum in the country and possibly in the world, is fighting a dying cause. Its amazing the crazy misinformation that visitors to Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown believe, starting with Pocahontas marrying John Smith, thank you Disney.

    In Virginia, not only did county borders change as they divided into smaller and more manageable areas, they changed names constantly, to further confuse the situation of where to find legal records. One of my wife's ancestors lived in 4 counties during his lifetime and but never moved.

    1. My comment on the Pilgrims referred not to the primacy of their arrival but the fact that they mistreated minorities. I am fully aware of the history of Jamestown, but I also frequently point out that the Spanish Empire established colonies in what is now the United States beginning with Saint Augustine in Florida in 1565. We don't usually give much credit to the settlement by countries other than England in our history.