Who Are You?
Ask anyone who he or she is and you will usually learn the person's name. The answer to where the person is from will depend on the circumstances under which the question is asked. In a business situation the answer would usually be the name of the company the person works for. In a casual conversation the answer could be the town the person currently lives in or the town and, possibly, the country he or she was born in.
But who is that person, really? Each person is more than just a name or location. We are all composites of many things. Our lives and personalities are affected and molded by where we live, by national and regional culture, by education, career and especially religious beliefs. Some of these aspects have been influenced by our environment. But, the most important factors we have gained from our parents and family. The key word here is 'family'. We are all products of our ancestral family: products of our genealogy.
Genealogy is the study of our ancestors, those people who have had the most influence on our being. We try to learn who they were; where they were born; where they grew up, raised families and died. These things make up our family's history. Each family has many stories. This is what makes genealogy so fascinating. What are your family stories?
While it takes a lot of work to discover your family's history, it can provide a lot of fun and some interesting learning experiences. First, you have to be curious. You have to think like a detective, asking many questions. You will have to question your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and anyone who will talk to you about your family. This includes people who are not family members but who may have had intimate contact with the family. Family friends and business partners may have wonderful stories about things your family members have done. Possibly, you may even uncover skeletons that are hiding in the closet. After learning the answers to the questions, you have to review your notes and theorize about what you have learned. This will lead to more questions and you may have to interview some of the people again for clarification.
You also have to collect documents for and about as many ancestors as possible. The documents will include birth, marriage, and death certificates, military records, wills, divorce papers and especially old photographs. Your research will also include non-legal documents such as newspaper articles and obituaries, trade magazines for your ancestor's occupation and, possibly, newsletters or periodicals produced by the company your ancestor was employed by. All of these documents tell a part of your family's history. Each will provide additional information. Every scrap of information will probably generate more questions which will create more research avenues. It will be hard and frustrating at times, but the breakthroughs will be rewarding.
Let's look at one such breakthrough and see how an old photograph led to some interesting discoveries. There was a young African-American woman who was researching her ancestry. She saw an old photo in her grandmother's house. The photo was of a young man in a strange military-style uniform. She asked her grandmother about the man and was told that he was the old woman's uncle and was buried in a cemetery in Virginia. The young woman went to the cemetery to see what she could learn about this man. What she found was astounding.
After the Civil War, the United States Army formed a unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Though African-American men, both slaves and freemen, had fought in the Army since the Revolutionary War, this was the first unit of African-American soldiers to serve in peace-time. This does not mean that they didn't see combat. They were responsible for guarding settlers, railroad workers and others during the great westward advancement in the U. S. The man in the old photo was a member of the Buffalo Soldiers. Not only that, but he was severely wounded during a battle defending a military gold shipment from train robbers. He had been awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery. The grandmother didn't know about her uncle's history, but because the young woman was curious about her genealogy, she was able to bring to light a fascinating story.
We may not have Medal of Honor winners in our families, but most of us will have heroic stories. Most of the people in the United States are descendent from immigrants. Think about their journeys from foreign lands to the U. S. Most of the immigrants came by ship from Europe and the Far East. They were poor and couldn't afford the luxury of traveling first class. And there was only one other class: steerage. The passengers suffered cramped, crowded quarters with little or no privacy. They were sometimes subjected to cruelty from crew members. They had no jobs awaiting them when they arrived. Many of them were not educated. Reading and writing among the poorer people was not common at that time. They carried their life's possessions in two or three suitcases. That is bravery. That is heroic. How many of us could face the unexpected the way they did?
Not all of your work gains information. There are frustrations. You may find a lead and follow it only to find proof that the person is not one of your ancestors. You know your great-great grandmother's name was Mary and her husband was named Tobias Smith. They were married in a certain town. You discover records for Tobias Smith working in the next town. Maybe Mary and Tobias moved. You start researching him only to find that Tobias Smith was married to Eliza. Did Mary die and Tobias remarry? But, you can't find a death certificate for Mary. Then suddenly you find a record of Tobias marrying Eliza, but the wedding date was a year before your Tobias married Mary. He's not your man. This happens occasionally. Occasionally? More likely we should say "frequently". All you can do is keep digging and hope for a breakthrough.
Just be patient and keep digging even if it seems like you're getting nowhere. The breakthrough can take a long time. In our research we have hit dry periods of several months to as much as two years where all of the leads were dead-ends or we found no leads at all. Then suddenly, a small bit of information was located that opened a flood gate and all of the frustration went away; at least for now.
So, do you like to read mystery stories? Do you like to solve puzzles? Do you want to know about your family's history and who your ancestors were? Can you take the frustration? If you really want to know who you are and where you came from, genealogy is for you.