Genealogy and history crossovers

Someone recently asked me how I became interested in public history and archives as a career. It didn’t take me long to come up with an answer. (After all, some version or other of that very anecdote had served as the introduction to many history scholarship essays, as well as one or two grad school admissions statements!)

It was genealogy, actually. I think I was always rather interested in history, which was probably why, when I was about 13 or 14, my grandmother thought of me when she asked if I would be interested continuing keeping track of the family tree that her father had written out on a roll of (unused) meat-packing paper many years earlier. She herself wasn’t interested in doing the research but thought it was important enough to find someone else who was interested. And that person turned out to be me.

The interest in history and the interest in genealogy reinforced one another, I think. How can you research a life without knowing something about the history of the time and place that person lived in? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sitting in a history class and thought to myself, Oh, that explains [insert something I found in the genealogy].

Allow me to share some examples of my history/genealogy crossovers:

  • One of my great-great-grandfathers had the middle name “Buell.” (He was born in Ohio in 1862. There were two Union generals named Buell; Don Carlos Buell was in charge of the Army of the Ohio.)
  • The story of my grandpa’s immigration to America from Italy in 1934 would make a good movie. Okay, maybe I’m biased, but there are definitely some points of historical (and suspenseful) interest: he almost missed the boat (literally) because he had to do his time in the Italian army and then get to America before his visa expired on his 21st birthday — he made it with less than a month to spare. (I certainly appreciated the seriousness of all that a lot better after I learned about the Immigration Act of 1924 and the quota system.)
  • At first I thought it was weird that neither my dad nor my aunts knew Italian, even though both their parents spoke it fluently. Dad said his parents didn’t want them to learn it. Then I realized it probably wasn’t cool to be Italian-American during WWII.
  • I don’t think I have any ancestors who fought in the Civil War, but my husband does. Actually, the relative that comes to mind wasn’t even in the army. He was a Kentuckian accused of being a rebel sympathizer and hauled off to Camp Chase in Columbus, where he – and one of his sons, actually – died.

And those are just a few… I could come up with many more. Wars in general make a good example of how history interrelates with genealogy. But any far-reaching historical event or era is a good candidate for such examples, really: like I said, immigration laws; economic upheavals like the Great Depression; epidemics such as the Spanish Flu in 1918; etc., etc. You get the idea.

I don’t really see how you can research genealogy without understanding history. I think that probably makes sense to most people who would endeavor to research genealogy.

But what about people who research history? Do you need to understand genealogy in order to research history? I won’t go so far as to make the unqualified statement that “yes, you do.” But, I think an argument could be made that in some cases it could be very helpful.

I have heard that many “serious historians” don’t take genealogists seriously or consider their research valid or valuable. And okay, yes, for many, genealogy is a “hobby,” a matter of personal interest. But I think genealogy can be a useful strategy and tool for understanding certain aspects of the “bigger” history.

What is history, really, but a story of actions taken by people over time? And who are people? Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, cousins, husbands, wives, daughters, and sons. Every person who ever lived and who may have in any way impacted history…had a family that shaped their life. (Or maybe they didn’t have a family — an orphan, perhaps — and that shaped their life, too.)

I think many of the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How questions of a person’s life can be traced back in some way to their family:

  • Who is this person? Who were their parents? Were they rich or poor? Were they famous? What was their childhood like? How did that shape their character? When and where were they born, grew up? Where did the family live, and why? How did all of these things shape that person and affect who they grew up to be?

Perhaps I’m drastically blurring the line between “history” and “biography” here. But honestly, history is made up of people, so I don’t see any important distinction there, really. If there were no people to cause the action in “history,” then the history books would be filled with what? … Well, nothing, because there’d be nobody to write them, but assuming they magically wrote themselves, I guess we’d have biology, zoology, geology, geography, meteorology, and astronomy, among other realms of science that do not need human interaction to exist. … But yes, history is made by people, and all of those people have background story that factors into the sum of their character and why they do what they do. And if family doesn’t contribute to making a person what they are, then I don’t know what does.

Just my two cents.

I recently wrote about the usefulness of genealogical research in understanding the contents of the manuscript collections I’ve been processing recently. I don’t think I could fully appreciate what I’m reading about when I read the letters in those collections without having some concept of who is being discussed in the letters.

For instance, a mother writing to one child about another isn’t always going to say, “my son [name]…” or “your brother [name]…” She wouldn’t have needed to, because the other family member would have known about whom she was referring. When I read a letter from Sarah Forrer to Mary Forrer in 1864 that says, “We heard from Howard,” I know she is referring to Mary’s brother Howard who is serving in the Civil War. A combination of genealogical research and historical research gave me the bits and pieces I needed to actually put the letter into some context. Or, when she says, “We saw Lib and Jere yesterday,” I can tell – thanks to genealogy research and context – that she is referring to another daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law Jeremiah.

Come on, did you really think I’d get through an entire post without a specific example related to the manuscript collection I’m currently processing? Tsk, tsk.

Speaking of the Forrer-Peirce-Wood Collection, I’ve got another interesting story brewing — well, two, actually — that I will be sharing with you all very soon. It’s A Tale of Two Howards : two cousins, both named Howard (probably because both their mothers were maiden-named Howard) who served in the Civil War. I’m sorry I didn’t write last week; I was researching the two Howards, but it seemed like every time I was about to write something, I thought of another “but why?” and delved deeper in another direction with it. It just didn’t feel done enough to share yet…

Random thought : You know you’re in the right profession, when the more you learn, the more you want to learn.

Coming soon : A Tale of Two Howards.

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