Wednesday 26 July 2017

Is there a hero in your family tree?

I use the word here generically – that is, it may be equally applied to either gender.

We tend to associate the term hero with courage in battles – to individuals who show exceptional bravery in saving others from harm. But my Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines the word primarily as: a person distinguished by courage, noble deeds, outstanding achievements, etc. There is no mention of fighting, combat or conflict of any kind. So what really defines someone as a hero?
More than 3,500 Canadian soldiers (all of them heroes) died in the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. There is always a flower blooming next to every headstone, no matter how remote a corner of the site it may be located. Vimy graves: Paul Kinsman blogsite; Vimy trench image: Vimy Foundation webpage; Vimy monument image: Reflections on Canadian History webpage
In their search of military records, many genealogists may find individuals in their families who were awarded medals for their acts under fire during the many wars in which countries and their people were engaged in over the centuries. We make great efforts to remember these individuals in monuments and in naming of public buildings, parks or streets.

I live in an area of Calgary that was part of a military base during the last two great wars. Street names include descriptions of military significance, such as: Valour Circle, Victoria Cross Boulevard and Burma Star Road. This is not surprising given the area’s history but it tends to reinforce our perception of heroes as being connected to armed forces activities of the past, not to everyday life.

Families can and do have other people who must be considered heroes:
·         a physician who administers to a community even at his own personal risk from contagions
·         a single mother whose focuses her entire life on the well-being of her children;
·         a wife or husband who dedicates her/his declining years to ensuring that her/his partner does not suffer unreasonably from a debilitating health problem
·         a volunteer for a local or foreign charitable organization who offers time and talents to help others with lessor means or opportunities
·         an individual who moves to a far-off, or sometimes not-so-far-off location in order to build a better future for their present or future families (sometimes enduring great physical hardship and deprivation in the process)
·         a relative who takes in and takes care of children of a sibling who may have fallen on hard times
·         an individual who dedicates themselves to their community, acting as a volunteer or elected official but who assists those in need through charitable efforts or his wealth
·         a person who, in spite of his own mental or physical limitations brings joy and inspiration to others by their selfless acts

These kinds of people are true, every-day heroes! They certainly fall under that category of noble deeds.

I have found a few people in my family tree that conform to some of the descriptions I have just listed. I will also say that I have not found any that were awarded medals for bravery under fire in any battle although there were many who enlisted when wars came along and served with honour and distinction.

Engaging in the study of family histories hopefully means learning about the activities in which our ancestors took part. These are not part of the dates and places we normally search for, except for how that information might relate to historical events. We always hope we will find something written directly by family members that will comment on their lives and families. Letters are rarely preserved, even those written by our closest ancestors. Parish records might contain snippets about people from which we can discern details of their actual experiences or relationships.

One example I discovered in my genealogical research was a minister who spent weeks assisting residents in Plympton St. Mary parish in coping with a cholera epidemic which spread primarily through the urban community beginning in July in 1832. Reverend William Isaac Coppard later wrote a book on his experiences, laying out the causes of the spread of disease and the methods he and local health officials devised to treat the afflicted. The book is title Cottage Scenes During The Cholera: Being extracts from a diary written in July and August, 1832, originally published by a number of firms in 1848. The book is available in reprint and scanned versions from several sources but is also available for free download from Google books. Rev. Coppard details his time spent in the homes of families who contracted the disease from notes he kept during the epidemic

Apart from military options, family historians might ask themselves what other heroic deeds have been be unearthed in constructing their family trees.