Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Understanding your past tells you your own story

People who don't do genealogy don't get those of us who do. They don't understand why genealogists love what they do, why we don't mind visiting dusty libraries and spooky cemeteries. Why discovery of a long lost picture or relative makes us reel with excitement.

Our history, isn't just about our DNA. The stories of the lives of our ancestor's is part of who we are. Just as things like abuse, violence, addiction and mental illness can be passed down in families, so can things like work ethics, occupations and a love for arts, education and family. Maybe something that occurred 100 years ago has no impact on our lives, but maybe it does.

The role of family has evolved and changed over the last few hundred years. In Colonial america we were nuclear families. Parental involvement and attachment to their children isn't the idea that we expect. We went from a place where only the eldest son inherited to a place where all children could inherit. Nuclear families to extended families, neglect and abuse to close knit and loving. The events of the time affected the family dynamics, just as much as today.

Immigrant families were shut off from their families and cultures, so enclaves of their culture developed where they settled. Brave souls set off for the wild, untamed lands to the west. Groups of families moved together and formed new bonds.

War tore us apart. From the American Revolution, which contrary to what we were taught, was not supported by a majority, to the Civil War, family fought against family. The support felt for whichever side was strong enough to break family bonds.

Lawlessness as a result of the wars brought a new chapter to our history. We all know of Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, and the Younger brothers. The events of their lives formed the basis of this lifestyle, their history shaped them.

The industrial age, prohibition, all these things helped shape our families, but it is how they dealt with it, and what they did that shaped the next generation, and so on, until we come to our grandparents, and our parents and our lives.

How much education did they receive and why didn't they get more? Were they rich or poor? Were they raised by their parents, relatives, or left to fend for themselves? Did they attend the school of hard knocks? Were they in trouble with the law? Were they adored by their family?

These questions are the kinds of answers you can get from genealogy. Sometimes people ask should we share the bad stuff? Well, I don't think we should ever violate someone's privacy, but we should be true to the story as recorders of history. We just don't have to publish it when it affects someone else. I also think, that knowing that cycles of dysfunction can continue, we have the responsibility to recognize them and be honest about them. If we want to make the future better, we have to be open about the past.

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