It has been quite a while since anyone has written about researching family history, and with Christmas fast approaching, I thought perhaps I might inspire someone to start planning their gift for a child or grandchild … for next year.
Unlike some popular television shows (that I enjoy) which give the impression that a person can walk into an archive or research facility and the staff will have your family tree all the way back to Adam already in hand, researching your family history, or genealogy, takes some time. If you are fortunate, someone may have already researched and compiled a manuscript or book on the family, but you will probably still have to add details for your particular branch of the family. But, it is well worth it.
The term “genealogy” first appeared in the English language in the 17th century and was defined as the “record of the passing on of sinne.” This was taken from the Biblical teaching that each person has inherited the sin nature from their parents, and each one from their respective parents, and so forth, all the way back to the beginning. Thus, the Bible’s telling of Jesus, as God’s son coming to earth as the One who would take away the sin of the world. But, genealogy can also just be a fun pursuit.
So, with genealogy, the researcher examines available court records, talk with living relatives, scours through old letters, diaries, church records and newspapers in order to piece together the story of his/her family and begin to build a lineage back through the years.
The Fun: In the process of researching, one becomes an amateur detective trying to locate the right ‘suspect’ when there may be more than one person of a particular name in an area. A genealogist collects and analyzes data, forms theories and seeks to prove or disprove what might be factual. It is fun and relatively as expensive or inexpensive as you want to make it.
The Relationships: When you research, you will meet new family members, perhaps, make lifelong friends and enjoy talking about “The Hunt,” or sharing ideas about how one of you solved a mystery about your family. More than thirty years ago, when I first came back home after several years of college, I came across a manuscript that an older couple had compiled on one of my family lines that I did not have much information on. Bob and Mabel not only were a great source of information, but they became dear friends, first, and cousins, second. I still often think about them.
The Education: Genealogical research should not just be about the names and dates; rather, it is about the people and their individual stories and how that person fits into the broader story of Miami County, Ohio, the United States and world history. In that respect, when someone researches it is an educational pursuit because the genealogist is always learning about the circumstances of when and where an ancestor lived. Did they live in early America as first people; did they arrive on one of the first ships; were they in the American Revolution, or the Civil War; perhaps they were recent immigrants who arrived on Ellis Island.
As I researched an ancestor who was in the 11th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry during the Civil War, I didn’t learn more about Antietam, Shiloh and Gettysburg, obviously important; rather I soaked in new information about what was happening out in the western territories during the war.
I have often thought basic genealogy could be a great tool for the schools to teach history. When kids find out their Great-Great-Great Grandfather took part in a specific battle, or went through the Great Depression, they are more likely to be interested in what actually happened during that time.
I have enjoyed history for a long time, but I have learned so much more about this and other countries or regional history because I pursued answers to why my ancestors left an area, or how did they end up “way out there”?
The Gift: My sister and I were two different personalities, but one of the best gifts she ever gave me when I was still in high school was a genealogist’s starter kit. It had a “How to” book, family group sheets and a large family chart. It launched me forth into this adventure of family.
I realize this is not my typical column, but I was thinking this week about how understanding history is important to seeing, in many ways, why our families are in this area, or why we might have certain traditions, and vice versa.
Whether it is for yourself, or for a loved one, why not begin digging into your family history and learning more about yourself? Try it. I think you will enjoy it and I think your family will enjoy the results.
The Troy-Miami County Public Library’s Local History Library staff is here and ready to assist you with next year’s Christmas gift.
Patrick D. Kennedy is archivist at the Troy-Miami County Public Library’s Local History Library, 100 W. Main St., Troy. He may be contacted by calling (937) 335-4082 or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org