Tuesday 19 December 2017

So what is the point of genealogy?

The Oxford dictionary says genealogy is the “study and tracing of lines of descent.” That is really kind of a dull-sounding subject. I actually find exposing the roots of my family quite entertaining.

Anyone reading this post is likely involved in family research activities – like me possibly extensively. We kind of take it for granted that everyone should be interested in the history of their ancestors and we are usually a bit disappointed when all we meet are glazed-over expressions when the subject comes up.

The results of genealogical studies have no commercial value, unless you are trying to publish and sell a book about an event your ancestors might have been a involved in; they are not part of any production of goods or services that others want or would pay for; they certainly don’t help to alleviate any ills of society. The money we spend, though, does support various commercial entities and archives that provide employment, so in that respect they do contribute to the economy.

I have discovered a great deal about where and how my ancestors lived by sifting through thousands of pages of parish records (Now that can be dull!), working as a volunteer to assist others find their ancestors (That can be rewarding!) and in researching data for articles I have written (That can be educational!). I have also participated in many courses, as well as webinars and conferences related to genealogy. They were all enlightening and valuable to my learning how to search for information in old records and to meeting other interesting people engaged in similar pursuits. And I have published a lot about our family's history in articles, on this blog and in a book especially assembled for family members.

I think my understanding of general history is better having found actual people related to me who were alive during important events of the past few hundred years. I have also been able to combine my geological expertise with my genealogical experience to appreciate what and how physical conditions affected the lives of my ancestors. That has resulted in even more things to write and talk about.

In reality, no matter how much work we do or what sources we investigate, our studies of past family members can only take us back so far. We are lucky if we can find information on ancestors in records prior to the 18th century (notwithstanding the many people who insist they are descended from Charlemagne!).

We may have had relatives who fought with Lord Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805; there may have been family members who are listed as victims of the Great Plague in 1666; perhaps an ancestor was a carpenter or mason who came to help rebuild London after the Great Storm of 1703; or maybe there were people related to you who made the long and arduous voyage to America in the 17th and 18th centuries to pursue new opportunities and a better life. These would be very interesting stories if we could uncover the details of those individuals’ involvement and experiences.

Most of us find it exciting if we come across some distant cousin who was in trouble with the law. It’s like falling into a new James Paterson novel only we have a personal connection with the perpetrator (hoping, though, there was no homicide involved).

Now there are ways to analyze DNA. Who does not aspire to find a direct physical connection to some noteworthy person of history, perhaps even royalty? Or be able to trace their way back to the beginnings of the human species in Africa and see definitively what paths their ancestors took that resulted in their families being where they are today. All of that seems tremendously exciting, as well as in tune with complex technical aspects of the society in which we live.

The main point of genealogy for me, I guess, is just in satisfying a curiosity about my family’s history and where I come from. Equally important, it fills many hours of my retirement that would otherwise be empty. That would be very dull, indeed! We should certainly be thankful for those thousands of people who have gone before us to record information and make it available in print or online so we can read it, otherwise we would not have such a pastime to enjoy at all.

The period that includes the lives of my ancestors encompasses but a few grains in the sands of time of human history. We cannot trace our specific familial origins back thousands of years even though we know we had direct ancestors who lived that long ago. So is the exercise really all that significant?

I think what I am saying is that we should not take it all very seriously (unless, of course, it’s your business). Our research will not add much, if anything, to any documentation of historical events but really only satisfy some of that curiosity I mentioned above. Not that we should not approach it with the idea of doing it right and demonstrating the connections we uncover are true.

Family history studies, I believe, are supposed to just be about enjoying the experiences of discovering stories about people to whom you may be related, especially if you can learn whether you have shared similar experiences, interests or abilities, however far apart in time they might have been.

So – are you having fun – reading obituaries and other similarly exciting tales?

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain perpetually a child. For what is the worth of a human life unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?

~Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 BC