In 11th grade, our AP history teacher made us either research our own family genealogy or choose a deceased person and research their genealogy. The day before the project was due, I did a crayon rubbing on some random person’s headstone at the local cemetery and attempted an internet search of his family. Nothing came up, so I made everything up, and turned in the assignment. Pretty sure I got an A. (Something is wrong with our education system.)
Now 10 years later, my research skills have drastically improved (stay in school!), and I do more than just a Google search to research people’s past. My online stalking skills would probably scare you, and I get help from genealogy websites like Ancestry.com to figure out if your parents are divorced or if you have bad genes.
Unless you don’t watch TV or use the internet, you may have noticed the increased interest in genealogy research. NBC has their Who Do You Think You Are? series that pushes people to buy a membership to ancestry.com and has revealed that a whole bunch of celebrities are even MORE important than we thought!! Brook Shields is European royalty ( duh! she’s so classy), Tim McGraw’s ancestors were friends with George Washington and Elvis Presley (ain’t he a real ol’ American?!), and Gwyneth Paltrow…(do we really need to know more about her!? Her family seems nice, but, no we don’t.) The list goes on and on, and celebrities laugh, cry, or ponder their very own existence based on their genealogical historical findings. The show pulls at our heartstrings and urges us to consider how history– our family history, that is, affirms our existence and purpose today.
I think we could all debate whether anything about our great-great grandfather actually has bearings on our personality today. ( I hope not, because mine was an opium addict who wanted to gamble away his family.) But as much as I don’t like to think that anything (including the history of my opium ancestor) can predict my strengths/weaknesses, capabilities, personality, or future, it’s undeniable that we all wonder at some point or another where we ‘came’ from. Sometimes it’s simply biology, but often times, it’s questions relating to our ancestry, heritage, culture, or roots. The narrative of our family’s past plays a huge part in our imaginings of our collective and individual purpose.
I’ve spent my fair share of time in the archives, and almost every single trip I’ve made to a state, local, or university archive, there has been some elderly person and/or elderly person with his/her grandchildren inquiring into their family history. I have my theories about why genealogical research is so popular today– baby boomers are all old, retired, and bored, internet has increased access to record finding, increased patriotism post 9/11 and the need to affirm our presence and progress in this country… There’s probably much more analysis one could do of society’s interest in family history. People invest time and money on their research–photocopies, membership fees, archival paper and boxes to keep their documents safe. It’s an investment in the past to reaffirm and reassure their present and future. BUT my point is, I’ve come across a lot of eager and resourceful elderly folk interested in their ancestry, and they’re my friends.
So how do people go about asking questions about their family’s past? Yes, you can talk to your grandma who can’t really hear you and forgets who you are because she’s 95 years old. Or you could ask your parents who probably recall some stories. Oral history and storytelling are vital for many families and communities that lack paper documentation in their past, but it’s important to exhaust all the resources for paper documentation. I’m after the cold hard written facts! (which, could indeed, be lies…) Check historical newspapers, court records, marriage and divorce records, land deeds, etc…Some simple searches in the right places can reveal a bulk of information…don’t get discouraged, but once you find a lead, it’s kind of like a mystery game… so you, too, should go off and explore your family’s past! (NBC please give me a job. Thanks!)
I’m no genealogy expert (you can find them huddled over microfilm in the library basement), so here are some helpful & free websites to get you started! Also, check out your local historical society!