This time, it all started with a “Dear Sir, may I please marry your daughter?” letter from the late 1820s. And before I knew it, I had gone from researching Quaker marriage rules to learning about the Hicksite Separation – all in the name of history clues.
How did that happen? Because it’s all inter-related, my friends. History and people’s lives, I mean. Sure, on some level, we all “know” that. After all, isn’t history just one big long story of what people did? That’s putting it simplistically, of course, but at it’s core, that’s what history is: a
When we think of history, a lot of times, maybe we think of the “history books”. And by “history books,” many of us think of those big, hardback textbooks from our K-12 days that really only scratched the surface, so maybe it was hard to see where the connections lay.
But when I can match the stories and lives of ordinary people, maybe even faces or handwritten notes, with a snippet of history, I think that’s pretty exciting.
I can never quite decide whether genealogy got me interested in history or if it was the other way around. But somehow or other, I have long been interested in both.
Here are just a few examples off the top of my head — and the boughs of my family tree — where the stories of ordinary people and the history of not just America, but the world, have meshed together to create meaning for me:
- My 5G-grandfather Elias Coriell received a land grant in Ohio for his service in the War of 1812. If there had been no war, or he hadn’t served, I wonder if they would have ever left New Jersey?
- My 2G-grandfather Jacob Coriell’s middle name was Buell. I always thought that was an odd name, but it took me until a college course on the Civil War to realize that my ancestor, born in Sept. 1862, was more than likely named in honor of Don Carlos Buell, a Union general from Ohio.
- I read books on immigration by Roger Daniels (Coming to America) and Donna R. Gabaccia (Italy’s Many Diasporas) a few years back and finally got a better understanding of the experiences of my Italian ancestors; particularly, an answer to “why the heck do the men show up on the ships manifests so many times?”
- Another one of Daniels’ books (Guarding the Golden Door) was particularly useful in learning more about the immigration laws and quota system that almost prevented my Grandpa Pasquinelli immigrating at all. He squeaked by just days before his 21st birthday and the expiration of his visa; another week and it would have been “back to the end of the line”. Why’d he wait until the last minute? Good ol’ Il Duce (Ben Mussolini) demanded a stint in the army before any man over 18 could emigrate. Fascisti!
A lot of your common, oft-repeated “history-and-ancestor-cross-paths” stories probably result from some war, because let’s face it, wars are awful and can change lives in the blink of an eye. You’ve got enlistments, either voluntary or drafted; potential for death in a variety of forms (obviously); raids, bombings; home front activities; killed/missing/just-plain-constantly-worried-about husbands/fathers/brothers/lovers (or the female version of those, in more recent years); quickie weddings, good-bye babies, possibly love-children in that the men don’t even know about, in foreign lands; all sorts of dramatic things. No wonder there are so many war movies!
I don’t have a lot of “war stories”. My most recent ancestor (or near relative of any kind really) to serve in a war was my great-grandpa Oscar Emnett. He was drafted for World War I. As the eldest of 9 in a family that had just lost its mother, they (whoever “they” were) offered to get him out of it, but true to the attitude of that Age, he said, “No, I’ll do my duty.” From the sound of his diary, “doing his duty” seemed to amount to a lot of desk work, playing cards, and noting the weather in France, but nevertheless, by god, he was there!
My grandpa Ed Coriell tried to enlist in the military – he graduated high school in 1945, 1 year after the G.I. Bill was enacted — so he could go to college for free when he was finished. But since he’s almost completely blind in one eye, they wouldn’t take him; so he kept on as a butcher instead and made a living for his family. My grandpa couldn’t use the G.I. Bill, but think how many other lives it has changed in the past 67 years…
Some of those history connections are probably more important than others. Would anything have been different if my ancestor’s middle name hadn’t been Buell? Probably not.
But what if Oscar had died in France? Or if a U-boat sunk his transport ship on the way over? I don’t think he really saw combat, but what about a disease? For that matter, he could have taken “them” up on the offer to stay home, gotten Spanish Flu in the 1918 epidemic.
Or what if my Grandpa P. had missed his boat? Or if visas had expired at age 20? Or if the quota system had been even more restrictive to Italians than it was? Or if Mussolini had made the mandatory army service longer?
I could go on and on, as I’m sure you’ve probably noticed.
But the point is this: It’s all really just one gigantic story. Thomas Foster said essentially this in regards to literature, but if it applies to fiction-within-the-context-of-history, then it certainly applies to straight-up history, too. It’s all just one, big, massive, tangled web. We’re all caught up in it, every single one of us. And what happens in history affects us, whether we like it or not. But what we don’t always realize is that we — the “ordinary everyday people” — help make up the pieces of that history, sometimes in big ways, sometimes small.
Sometimes we’re just going along, living our lives, and we have no idea what impact our actions could have down the road, whether as an example of “such-and-such phenomenon” in history, or in changing the course of…something…in history, or a million other ways I can’t even begin to imagine.
And before you say, “Oh, but I’m nobody special, I’m not going to ‘change the world’ or whatever,” fine, let’s pretend that’s true. But you’re connected to this person, and they’re connected to the next person and the next person, etc., etc. And just by existing, you are having an impact on the world, and thereby, on history. There’s just no getting around it.
See what I mean? A tangled web.
Isn’t it fun?