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Genealogy, Why Do We Do It?

A genealogist is an historian, archeologist, sociologist, psychologist, detective or investigator, analyst, compiler, writer, editor, diarist, journalist, educator, theorist, documentalist...

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Genealogy, Why Do We Do It?
By Judith Florian

 

Sometimes people think of genealogists as people with an obsessive interest in family business, and not everyone quite understands why we do it? This is a hard question to put into a one sentence answer.  Some family historians may answer simply: "It interests me" or "itís my hobby." But, why is it such a strong interest of so many? In many ways, it would be the same as asking someone why they keep a diary. 

Family history has to do with many intangible things: memories, legacy, nostalgia, intrigue, mystery, valuing family and family roots, the desire to understand relationships between people and to "know" ancestors whom we will never know in real life. Family historians ultimately may have a wide array of interests that singly would create many individual professions, but which collectively combine to create a "genealogist." We are in a sense similar to each of these separate professions: historian, archeologist, sociologist, psychologist, detective or investigator, analyst, compiler, writer and even editor, diarist, journalist, educator, theorist, and maybe a few others. We are a documentalist, without the benefit of video equipment, striving to provide a coherent glimpse into generations past, for the eyes of the current generation and future generations. 

Genealogy requires knowledge of history at least in a broad view, if not a detailed understanding of American history (as well as history in countries overseas if weíve made the leap across the ocean in our research).  It helps to know when States were formed, when the government opened new territories for sale, and what settlers would have found when entering these new regions. Migration patterns and knowledge of religions helps to track the movement of groups of people into these newly opened areas, or when later groups arrived. As knowledge of US history assists in understanding peopleís movement from one locality or another, tracking a family or individual from place to place is just one aspect of the detective work. 

We are detectives or investigators in many ways, but primarily in knowing what to look for and where. Itís important to know when a County began keeping birth, death, and marriage records, and when these would be available at the State level. For deaths, it adds to our understanding if we are aware of major social, health and world problems, such as wars, epidemics, and even major earthquakes that often changed world climates and caused crop failures, both of which often led to widespread disease and deaths. Investigative skills rely on knowledge of what records might be available through local libraries and county courthouses. Understanding of the U.S. Federal Census Schedules is a must, and knowing the depth of information the Census in different years can provide. Searches for persons after 1930 to present require knowledge of what information is available in public records, such as marriage and divorce records, Wills and Accounts, deeds, and newspapers, or even searches through local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.  

It is common to hear genealogists use the expression "digging for information," and indeed, the search for records is often as strenuous and tedious as an archeology dig. A researcher must be as careful and meticulous as an archeologist, carefully sifting through pieces of information as one would brush away loose dirt covering a fossil. Genealogy often requires going through "layers" of information within a deed or other record. As with physical finds, it is often as important to note what is missing as what is found, and to create a record of those finds, just as an archeologist creates a catalogue of bones, artifacts, or fossil finds. If his catalogue recorded finding 3/4ths of a dinosaur skeleton, interest would still be high to locate the 1/4th remaining pieces. Such is the same with genealogy, where a missing date or name only intensifies the search of the field of records. Genealogists often speak of new information they have discovered or uncovered. And, just as a archeology site sometimes must be covered or re-buried during the off-season, genealogy searches must often be put on hold as we study the information already collected or take our own winter hiatus away from the search and devote ourselves to our current life. 

Sociology is important as we uncover, discover, and seek to understand individuals and families. Here things such as knowledge of religions, group affiliations, and institutions are useful. Churches were erected when communities were established so these are the oldest institutions of a town. Groups that started within churches, or from political affiliations or other interests (civil work, charity work, etc), and extended throughout many communities. Some of these groups have existed for over 100 years. An ancestorís life and values were reflective of, as well as shaped by, their church or community group affiliation. Collecting the social history of an individual helps us compile a living portrait of what our ancestorís personality and life might have been.  



Sometimes we donít understand some aspects of data weíve collected about an individual, or certain information does not make sense to us, looking back on the life this person lived. Maybe you found estrangements within the family, but do not know what caused it. Or, maybe you find details which genealogists often call sensitive information. 



In either case, on pops the psychologist hat, as you seek to understand human motivations and behavior. Later research may either prove or disprove the theories you developed to explain some aspect of an ancestors life, or sometimes you may never find further records that explains a mystery.  

But it is the mystery of human life that keeps you coming back to do more research! As you analyze data collected, and compile it with loving care, you realize how much or how little you have completed about your familyís travel through history. Just as the historian or archeologist continues looking for more and more information that will explain, enlighten, and enlarge understanding of their subject of interest, so does the genealogist/family historian.  Eventually, someone asks "When will you compile this into a book," and the family researcher becomes a writer and editor of a work that may only interest one or two current generations of living family. The justification becomes that the genealogy record is being made for future generations. But, in fact, there is no need for justification of a passion that encompasses so many interests and so many areas of knowledge. 

Like a diarist,  journalist; educator, theorist, or documentalist, we search, record, and compile our family history to honor memories, legacy, nostalgia, and the value we feel for lives lived, past and present. As such, a family historian indeed has a noble calling. The diarist only records the present as seen through one set of eyes and experience. The genealogist seeks to record with accuracy the past and present, through remnants left in documents as well as first-hand "knowing" about persons now deceased or still living, and often through many eyes when many family members contribute facts and stories about different persons. While history or sociology preserves information about groups of people, a family researcher preserves the memories, traditions, values, legacies and lineages of a specific family group.  


Who is to say exactly why each of us pursues genealogy with such passion?

 

 

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 Genealogy 101-New to Research?

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Genealogy 101 - Use of Newspapers in Genealogy Research

 

 

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All newspaper items posted with permission of the Observer-Reporter Oct. 13, 2005.

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Copyright Notice - Data / info. for individuals and surnames may be reproduced for personal family histories only, but not for any commercial use or sale. Please give credit to Judith Florian and Catherine L. Caldwell for locating newspaper items and original documents. You may use J. Florian's research conclusions if credit is given. No other data or images may be reproduced without permission. © August 2005-present, Judith Florian, Copyright All rights reserved.

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