In my early years as a genealogist, my favorite quote was by George Bernard Shaw:
“If you can’t get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you’d best teach it how to dance.”
For this RecordClick genealogist, the implications of this quote are that we, as family historians, often find that our ancestors participated in questionable activities and then to make this historic activity a bit more palatable, we add a different ‘spin’. Yet, sometimes, for the genealogy researcher, that is just not possible.
In my genealogy research, I find it fascinating to see the different aspects of a life evolve.
I found a good example of this on a recent episode of the genealogy TV show Who Do You Think You Are, with Melissa Etheridge. A family member did a very good job of creating a family tree. The names and dates were there and, as near as I could tell, they were accurate. Melissa wanted to put some meat on the skeletons of several of these ancestors and sought to find answers to: Who were they? What did they do? Why did they move from one place to another?
For the family history researcher, what used to be a hobby of collecting names and dates of our progenitors is turning into something more. Genealogy is, of course, history. Our ancestors lived in a different time and place. So the genealogist finds that this hobby is now more sophisticated and encompasses research in law and medicine, technology, sociology, psychology, government, religion, agriculture, transportation. The list goes on.
What impresses this genealogist is that my particular thoughts about the activities of my ancestors don’t really matter. I can’t change the fact that one set of gggrandparents looks like they lived together and had a child before they married. My ancestors are who they are. They did what they did. At the time, it seemed to be their best option. It is something akin to the scene in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when Paul Newman and Robert Redford jump off the cliff to escape the agents pursuing them.
An easy question (but not necessarily a good one) often asked by the genealogist while researching is: “How does this make me feel?” This is favorite question of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and he probably asked it to Ben Affleck in that episode of Finding Your Roots when Ben found out some of his ancestors were slave owners. The question was edited out. That answer most probably was unsettling.
No genealogist finds it pleasant to find that an ancestral home went up in flames or family members died of diphtheria, or were murdered or owned other people.
The genealogist will inevitably uncover more than an simple ancestor. The genealogist deals with more than just collecting a thousand names in a data base.
So, how does what our ancestors did affect who we are?
In the case of both Ben Affleck and Melissa Etheridge, the genealogist may wonder why did their ancestors own slaves? How did the economics of owning slaves affect the family through several generations?
While Melissa was learning about the several times great grandfather who did well and owned slaves in Missouri, she commented about how poor her grandfather’s family was. What had happened in her family history? She talked about the generality of financial cycles, but this genealogist suspects it had something to do with the economics of slavery or the depression. The show’s time ran out, but perhaps the issues can be dealt with on other episodes.
The genealogist will also deal with economics. How did the haves get to be the haves? What were the attitudes of the haves? How did the have-nots struggle to get along or better themselves? What happened when a have became a have-not? Or a have-not became a have?
Why should a genealogist or anyone care?
The answer comes in another favorite quote, this time this genealogist looks at the words of Maya Angelou:
The more you know of your history the more liberated you are.
When you hire a genealogist from RecordClick, we will find your family’s story by developing research strategies, locating documents and creating your family tree. Our family history researchers will chronicle and verify (or debunk) your family lore and write your family’s history.