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Why We Do Genealogy

From Jan at Danville Crossing
January 23, 2000 

Afternoon All, 

I have for some time pondered the enormous amount of time and energy all of us spend on our genealogy endeavors, and wondered a bit at the whys of it, the wherefores of it, and how we are alike and how we are different.  I have pondered on the really rather "selfish" reasons we each and every one begin, and how it seems to grow into something much bigger than all of us by the end of it...and I have wondered at it, and at the tool it really is, and WHOSE tool it really is. 

Having watched folks in action in regard to the search of their family history for a number of years...from the days in which computers were "untold" of, and even microfilm readers a rarity and "new tools on the ll times there were different reasons for the search, but never so much so as in these days of faster easier information and global sharing.  And it seems to me that in these days of global access, the day is now upon us for the real reasons for it all to grow into one and come to fruition. 

I think we all enjoy the thrill of the "chase".  As surely as another may thrill to the climb of Mount Everest or swimming the English Channel, we thrill to uncovering a lost and forgotten document, discovering a connection that no one else has found, finding that one lost family Bible that proves the very hunch we have been going on for years, standing at a grave site that no one in our family has stood by for over a hundred years.  And so the thrill of the adventure of sleuthing in a very "safe" way is there for the most of us.  It has been there from the beginning of family searches and will be there for as long as there are family searches.  But there are differences in the approach... 

Some take dates and facts quite seriously, documented please, with little or no interest in the folklore, traditions or culture of the times, and little patience with the genealogy lists who explore the lives of the ancestors in totality.  "Just the facts, m'am" seems to be their mode of operation and nothing wrong with that if you wish to publish a book that cannot be disputed, or if your main idea is to gain entrance to an elite genealogy circle of descendents that will only take that based on undisputed facts. Nothing wrong with that if you wish to ONLY have what can be proven, and leave unclaimed that which was never in a written record, regardless of the likelihood.  Nothing wrong with that if what you collect is only the proven. The only drawback I have ever seen is that quite sometimes folks of this mode of thinking maybe don't like to see their facts disputed, their books "upset", and it is especially likely in this age of information and contacts that the "facts" ARE going to be disputed.  That person written off as dying as an infant may very well turn up to have simply gone to another place and a line did indeed descend that is not documented... YET.  That person written off as "not being from a family" because not listed as a sibling by another may simply have been "disowned" and somewhere down the line someone is going to discover something no one prior to this saw or had access to and the facts are going to change.  We live in an age when we best be being flexible about what is "set in stone".  The "stones that were turned" when every one of them seemed to be 25 years ago, are NOT the stones that can be turned in this day and age.  And in this age of global sharing and more and more coming on board to find their histories, it is going to even become more likely that our "set in stone" information can change.  So careful, you "gurus", and a word of caution to the rest of us who wish to rely upon the "gurus" as end-all and be-all,  too.... know that we are now entering an age when we cannot "write anything off"...there are yet documents in dusty attics and cellars, yet Bibles in forgotten closets and trunks, and yet descendents of an "unknown line" who have simply not been interested in coming forth...yet. 

Throwing up brick walls without listening, without remaining flexible, without trying to gain the facts yet uncovered robs ourselves and others of not just credibility, but of the growth that comes from all this...There are those of us who learned somewhere along the way that all of us whose lines stretch far enough back in this country are indeed related to not one but several Revolutionary War soldiers, not one but several very early inhabitants of the country, not one but several important patriots.....and not one, but more than a few outlaws and folks that are not exactly going to land us in any elite genealogy circle unless you count the Black Sheep of America.  And with this realization, and a touch of good humor, we either focus on our patriots and "proving" those lines or we get a bit sidetracked or maybe BOTH...depending upon who we are and what we really thrill to and wish from all of this....

And for some of us, touching a piece of paper a great-great-great grandfather signed with his own hands is more thrilling than anything else.  Pouring over the tax receipts, the farm journals, the old letters, the deeds, is more about understanding than it is about proving.  Exploring the way our ancestors lived, slipping into their shoes and BEING who they were for a few moment in time, as best we can from what we can learn of their times, becomes our own reason for continuing. 

And we keep growing.  We see our place in history, and we see our reason for being.  We see where our thought patterns came from, and we understand what tiny specks we are in the scheme of things, and yet paradoxically what important links we are even as tiny specks...genealogy becomes a humbling experience for us, and somehow as we discover cousins all over this globe we become more and more a part of  humanity in a very deeply appreciative way.  We reach out to help another find his or her history, knowing they are embarking on the same journey of growth we have experienced and they simply do not realize it yet.  We feel their excitement at that first grasp of it, and we smile knowingly...we remember how it was.  We watch them plug away at it for months and years and then we see them starting to share with others...and we smile knowingly, we have been there.  We see them lapse from consistently searching their own roots, to spending much more of their time helping others with theirs...and we smile knowingly, this is a person who has grasped what it really is about, what we can really become from all of this. 

 We grow from the thrill of first finding the names and dates, to finding the cousins breathing the same air we breathe today, to understanding with full realization and great humility that ALL, the good, the bad, the ugly, are our cousins....to wanting to be a stepping stone for others...we branch off at some point realizing that being a stepping stone for others is much more than helping them find their family roots, and we start to practice that as well...genuine caring for strangers becomes as much a part of our genealogy quest as anything else.  At some point we realize what it really is all about is learning to be a tool for good folks to become better folks. That is all, and it is an adventurous and thrilling ride to a serene destination. 

Just a thought,

Copyright 2000 Jan Philpot 

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