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The City and County of Washington Pennsylvania
Washington County Pennsylvania History and Families
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...
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
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
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?