Saturday, March 6, 2010

Genealogy vs. History

I had no intention of writing a post about Who Do You Think You Are? on NBC.

There has been a lot of hype about it among the geneabloggers and genealogy community in social network. We even received a schedule of the promotional interviews including The Today Show, The View and Oprah. After watching Lisa Kudrow's interview on The View, I decided I wanted to watch the show to see what all of the hype was about. Is it really the new Roots which is going to cause everyone to jump on the genealogy bandwagon like the famous miniseries did in the seventies?

Watching the show, I enjoyed seeing Sarah Jessica Parker's emotions as she was told information about her family. They seemed real to me as I've had many of the same feelings. This, however, is what my husband, John, didn't like about the show. To him, it sensationalized the show. He would have preferred more facts. I also appreciated how the show grounded the genealogy discoveries in the context of history.

At one point, Sarah Jessica Parker was handed a letter detailing her 4th great-grandfather's death in the California goldfields. I must say that letter hooked me. Don't we all wish we had a letter like that to explain events we don't have any information about? The show didn't explain where the letter came from, however, this morning I received an e-mail from Anastasia Tyler, PR Manager of Ancestry explaining the letter. "We found a letter written by someone in Ohio to John S. Hodge, which had been published in a book," says Natalie (ProGenealogist). "One of my colleagues tracked down the original set of letters, which provided more details, including information about John S. Hodge's 1850 death."

After the show, I considered what Sarah Jessica Parker learned about her family history and compared it to my experience. In some ways there wasn't much comparison: Parker didn't spend years tracking down her genealogy the same way I have; instead, thousands of dollars were spent for professional genealogists to do the research. She didn't spend months trying to figure out frustrating details or missing information. But her response to the information was very similar to my response. There is wonder, excitement and sadness in genealogy.

What we have in common is the understanding that each person in our family tree is a thread. All of our ancestors' threads are woven together and create a tapestry of history. History focuses on the strongest, the leaders, the people who made a name for themselves, whether good or bad. Genealogy, however allows us to see history in another light. We see the people, our people, who lived in the times and were a part of history, but nothing much was written about them because, well, they were kind of boring in light of the people who made a name for themselves. As we research and learn about their lives, though, we discover our ties to the history, history that may not have meant much to us until we learn we have a vested interest in that period of time.

Without genealogy, some of the history would be lost forever. Think of the stories we wouldn't know if Alex Haley hadn't become interested in his genealogy. I have two friends,
Jane Kirkpatrick and Heidi Thomas, who have written historical novels about their grandmothers. Jane's grandmother was a photographer in the early 1900's and Heidi's grandmother rode steers in rodeos in the 1920's. Neither woman was famous, but because Jane and Heidi have written their stories we have a another perspective of the history, one we would have missed without genealogy.

That's what I've discovered as I write my family's history. You will find Ernest Christison as a sidekick of Ed Watson in the cattle rustling story in the history books. But because I researched Ernest and his involvement, I discovered there was much more to the cattle rustling story than has been told. I've also found the same to be true in Wilburn Christison's story. Sometimes more of the history is revealed through the lesser known people.

I hope Who Do You Think You Are? will draw more people to genealogy. Genealogy can open a door to understanding history. But it can also light a fire for children. I have a friend, Hailey, who is a first-grader. Hailey will tell you three of her ancestors was on the Mayflower. And she can tell you some of the history. Do you think this child will have an interest in history throughout her life? Hailey already knows the secret of each thread creating a tapestry of history.


Lori said...

I watched the program -- actually I had to record it because here it was bumped to about 2 a.m. because the local network affiliate was broadcasting the state girl's basketball tournament, which I'm sure is must-see TV for those whose daughters play... I enjoyed it, although I think that Sarah Jessica missed out in not doing the digging herself. While sometimes I wish I could afford to have a professional do it for me, I also know that then I'd miss those wonderful moments when you come across a vital piece of family history. Yes, my ancestors, so far as I've found, were ordinary people living relatively ordinary lives (although to me, doing something like leaving behind everyone and everything you know and traveling to a new country where you can't speak or understand the language is something enormous, as is claiming a homestead as an 18 year old woman on your own, and building a sod house in the middle of nowhere by yourself. Or maybe with a brother -- we're still trying to figure that out! I'd never have made it). Geneaology does lead to stories, and our personal place in the great river of history. Thanks for a great blog!
Lori Orser

Gayle Gresham said...

Thanks, Lori, for leaving a comment. An 18-year-old woman with her own homestead? How cool!Is the homestead patent in her name? There are so many great stories in genealogy.

And I agree with you about doing the digging. I think our finds are so much more meaningful when we do it ourselves; especially after years of hard work.

Cynthia Becker said...

I agree that greater reward is found in tidbits of information found in your own search rather than having a genealogy resarched by someone else and handed to you neatly bound in a scrapbook. A good post, Gayle.

galleri (Sundee) said...

I totally agree that they are missing out on those fun and exciting moments of what you find, and honestly I enjoy researching myself...I find myself at times getting sidetracked at looking at other families in the same census.

Gayle I am curious how long it took them to research each celebrity's line??? Think Ancestry would answer that?