Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Walking Tour Through the Generations

There is something about slowing down enough to examine the historical context surrounding the lives of each of our ancestors that helps reveal significant details we’d otherwise miss.

Just think of it in terms of travel. If you fly, that delivers you to your destination faster, but at 35,000 feet above the earth’s surface, you won’t glean much detail concerning the ground you’re covering. Switching transportation mode from plane to car gets you closer to that ground floor of information, but slows your progress considerably. And if you really want to know—up close and personal—walking is the best method for spotting the details you are passing as you trudge along in your ancestors’ shoes.

Right now, I’m walking. Like a homeschooler studying my curriculum via the Unit Studies approach, I’m not boxed in to any one academic discipline. I’m free to look around and connect the dots on the observations I make. I’m at liberty to consult any resources available to me, be they hundred-year-old books, local history publications or repositories, websites, or face-to-face interviews with those in the know.

It’s slow going. But hey, who’s the task master here? It’s not like anyone is going to hold me accountable for not finishing on time, or for not cramming in the proper number of generations. I can be as thorough as I wish. And that, as you’ve probably noticed, is how I like it.

It is so important to be able to understand the pressures and challenges our ancestors made—why they left their homeland, why they made certain academic or occupational choices (or had no say in the matter at all), how they faced up to the unavoidable crises of their day. Understanding the context of their lives helps us see these ancestors for who they really were. Whether they were saints or scoundrels, they were the inheritors of the genes which they have now passed on to us. We may find ourselves being outraged at their “choices” or wishing things had turned out differently for them—and, ultimately, for us—but when we uncover the motivations, the inspiration, the fears and consternation these ancestors dealt with, we lift them from the two dimensional pages of the annals of history and breathe new life into their existence. We understand better.

Right now, I’m pushing back the generations on my mother’s maternal side of the family, and I’m mired in the Civil War era. I’m actually finding published books on the letters written home by soldiers who just happen to be related to my family. I want to take the time to read them—to soak up the ambience of the era.

Can you imagine living in a time like that? What if you didn’t share in the political viewpoint of your neighbors? What if, despite that detail, you decided to serve, anyhow? What were the interpersonal dynamics in the families of my ancestors during that time period? While it won’t fit in nicely on an ancestral chart, I still want to know. I’m a family historian more than a genealogist.

Each step of this pursuit teaches me that I will learn as I go. I’ve already mentioned that this research in the South is new territory for me. I have no concept of what was important in local history of that time period. Comments from those of you for whom this territory holds more familiarity have been helpful—each of us is a repository of expertise in the areas in which we are well-versed; I’m thankful that we can learn from each other.

In one way—keeping in mind I have research goals I’m chomping at the bit to conquer—this slow pace can be agonizing. I want to get to the finish line—in particular, to see if I can find the nexus between my maternal line and that of my mystery cousin. I also want to succeed in confirming as many matches as possible for those pricey DNA tests in which I’ve already invested. But when I learn the reasons behind the specific details of my family history that only could have been uncovered by a slow, deliberate research pace, the cost in delays is worth the reward in discoveries.

As genealogists, we are becoming experts in our own family’s history. It’s not just for our own enlightenment—it’s to pass down to our future as well. Someone out there—maybe a generation removed from us, maybe a century beyond the reach of our lifetime—will appreciate the tangible record we’ve so painstakingly preserved. This is no time to fly past all the good stuff. Put the details in your research journal. It’s the rare person who cares more for the beginning date or the end date than that little dash in between the two. That’s what will make it worth passing along.

Above: "Rain in an Oak Forest," 1891 oil on canvas by Russian painter Ivan Shishkin; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. It never ceases to amaze me how far some of those folks walked in a day (back in the day). Some civil war infantry men walked thousands of miles over their 3-4 years of service.

    Then there is the story of a lighthouse keeper (I think on the Great Lakes) that if I recall correctly, walked 65 miles every weekend to get groceries.

    1. You learn a lot about the territory you cover when you walk matter how far or how close the destination.

      I think about all the photographs you've taken, Iggy, on your many hikes :)

  2. So many excellent points here. I feel the same way that sometimes I just want to rush to get to some imaginary finishing line I have set up in my head. It's about those little details that's how you find out who your ancestors really were. Great post!

    1. Thanks, Andrea! I don't know why it is we goad ourselves onward--although, in the end, that's the incentive that helps us get things done--but if we weren't on the journey at all, think of all the details we never would have found to treasure or wonder at.

  3. I find the Civil War era very interesting but I cannot imagine living through that time in history. I am so glad you are finding info.good for you! :)

    1. I am constantly amazed at how I--a former high school hater of the study of history--am now so absorbed with its fascinating twists and turns. I had never been interested in the Civil War...until now. Studying family history has a way of sucking you in to the details behind the timeline. Now that I'm seeing history through the eyes of family, it means something entirely different.

      And yes, Far Side, I am ecstatic about all the information I'm finding!


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