Why We Do It

I was hoping to continue on the family secrets theme, but after spending a weekend with my family I decided that I prefer keeping the family secrets to dying a slow and painful death.

So instead I thought I would lead you on a short trip through the growth and development of this genealogist. I’ve been doing genealogy for about 20 years. I was introduced to the idea by an old friend. Her story was so interesting and compelling that I decided that this stuff might actually be interesting. She gave me some advice to get me started and I was off. It was exciting and challenging to visit the National Archives for the first time. The Internet was just beginning to be useful to genealogists and then along came Ancestry and I was amazed and delighted at how easy it was to add names to my family tree. I bought a piece of genealogy software and proudly put in all those names and dates. And I proudly passed my new information on to my family who responded with, “Who cares?”

This is actually a good question, because names and dates and tracing your family back to Attila the Hun really isn’t very interesting. So I moved from collecting people to wondering who they were, what they did, how they lived, where they lived, why they lived there, and the thousand and one other questions that define each of us. And I found those questions could be answered too. The answers are found in a surprising number of sources; newspapers, county histories, the less well known agricultural and industrial censuses and a thousand other places that are still a constant and delightful surprise to this genealogist.

But the questions still remained, “So what?” and “Why are you doing this.” Only other genealogists seemed to understand the thrill of the “ah-ha” moment, when you discover something about a relative that you have been searching for for years. My standard answer became, “I love doing this because it connects me to the history of this country in a very personal way.” It is true that I have learned more about American history doing genealogy than I ever did in school. But the answer was always vaguely unsatisfying to me, and then I found Laurel Ulrich. She’s not one of my relatives; she’s an historian at Harvard University who writes about the history of people who considered themselves ordinary. She studies the history of women, often far harder to track down then our male relatives, but I think that in some ways her remarks apply to all of our quiet, industrious, average families. In her book Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History, she says, “Cotton Mather called them ‘the Hidden Ones’. They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question God or the magistrates. They prayed secretly, read the Bible through at least once a year, and went to hear the minister preach even when it snowed. Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history.

We all have a few illustrious ancestors and a few who are remembered for their misbehavior, but for the most part our families emigrated to a new country, worked hard, raised their families well, and lived their lives without having their voices heard. When we discover their stories and when we tell them we give them back their voices.

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