Tuesday 12 February 2019

Your Boring Ancestors . . . or NOT!

I was alerted to a blog post by Gail Dever in her “crème de la crème” post this week: How to Write about your Boring Ordinary Ancestors by Jessica Benjamin.

I had seen another post by Chris Paton on his The GENES Blog recently as well, titled, Boring Ancestors?! That one was a reprise of an article he had written in 2009.

If you search the Internet for “boring ancestors” you actually get quite a few hits.

I confess I have had similar thoughts about my ancestors, that they were, for the most part, just regular people – no royalty, brigand, explorer, cult figure, war hero or captain-of-industry types. And none of them descended from Charlemagne! In other words: Boring!

But . . . however one might want to characterize them, from my parents on back as far as I can trace my forebears, having now given some thought to the idea, I do not think they were boring at all. One does not have to be royalty, brigand, explorer, cult figure, war hero or captain of industry to be adventurous or entrepreneurial, generous or kind, witty or clever, affable or gregarious, loyal or encouraging, or kind-hearted or benevolent. Probably with few exceptions I can point to my ancestors as having been hard-working, strong-minded, supportive, caring, determined, family-oriented people. And that is definitely not boring!

Many of my family members have had relatively normal occupations or careers: farmers, carpenters, mason, mechanics, salespeople, etc. They may not have made headlines in their trades or professions, but their work was no less valuable to themselves and the people around them. Raising a family and providing for their welfare is not boring. Depending on the circumstances, though, it might be considered meritorious. I have not yet found an ancestor that did not have some trials and tribulations in their lives that they persevered through.

My wife and I both have very close family members that decided to uproot from their (boring?) lives in Britain and strike out for Canada. They had nothing much to their names in terms of wealth or possessions, but they had a determination to find a new life in an unknown world.

My paternal grandfather was just 16 when, in 1907, he boarded the Empress of Britain in Liverpool, England, bound for Canada. He may have fibbed a bit about his age which was shown on the passenger manifest as 19. On his own, he worked in Ontario before coming to Alberta where he was employed as a wrangler for a while. After marriage he became a farmer, though I understand not a great one. His father joined him in Alberta in 1913 and went homesteading himself, in 1926, at the age of 61. How boring is that?

My maternal grandfather was born in Kansas in 1870, homesteaded in Oklahoma in 1893, returned with his wife and family to farm in Kansas in 1904, then moved to Washington about 1912, again to farm, and to Oregon around 1915. Their final move was to Alberta, Canada in 1928. Grandpa was 58 then and looking to start all over with new, unbroken farm land.

My wife’s mother came to Canada, in 1930, at the age of 21, settling in Calgary. She knew no one here and was obligated to work as a domestic to pay off her passage. Her husband, my wife’s father, had arrived in 1927, to work first for an uncle on a farm in Saskatchewan and then on to Calgary a year or so later. Both came with only their dreams.

Many other great-grandparents uprooted their families and immigrated to Canada and the US, most in the 19th century. Others before them had migrated to different parts of the British Isles, also seeking opportunity. None of their lives could said to be boring as they were continually challenged to make a living and raise a family.

Once the earliest immigrants of my mother’s family had arrived in the US, in the 17th and 18th centuries, many made their way across the country, different generations settling in Maryland, Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, Kansas, Oklahoma and Oregon. My father’s ancestors arrived in Ontario, then moved around the province and subsequently to North Dakota before my great-grandparents made their way to Alberta. I cannot imagine starting up new farms around the continent was boring.

My wife’s ancestors originated in many different parts of Scotland, from the Shetland Islands to Glasgow. They were fishermen, farmers, career army men, weavers and domestic servants, a few having several different occupations within their own lifetimes. They went to wherever there was work and opportunity.

And yet they were all just regular people – boring people according to some definitions.

I can attest that among more recent generations, we have lots on non-boring people. Some family get-togethers are exceedingly un-boring.

I suspect there are no boring people, especially in our past family trees. Nor ever have been! Every family is exciting in its own way, all people being different.

It is not what ship an ancestor boarded, what house they lived in or what crop they grew that is important; it’s why they boarded the ship, why they chose to go and live where they did and whether they chose to be a farmer, or something else, that is the real story. The addresses and dates might be boring; the lives of the people are not, not even for regular folk.