June 25, 2012

Why Do We Do Genealogy?

A friend asked an interesting question yesterday. "Why do you do genealogy?" she said. Sounds like a simple question doesn't it. And the answer should be simple - "I do genealogy because...."

But guess what? It's not simple. The reasons I currently "do genealogy" are not the same reasons I would have given 20 or 30 years ago. When I began my genealogy quest at a very young age, it was because my father had expressed such curiousity about our Irish McGinnis origins. He died when I was 14 and I made a vow after his death to find out about our McGinnis ancestors for him. In his memory. So my answer to that question, had it been asked, those many years ago, would have been simple. "I do genealogy because I want to find my McGinnis ancestors for my father."

That isn't my main reason anymore. I've grown. This has been a journey - still is a journey, and as on any journey, my needs and desires and goals along the way have changed. For example I've discovered that I can't let a mystery lie without digging into it. I need to find answers. So my answer to that question now would be
"I do genealogy for many reasons. One is my curiousity about my ancestors - who were they, what were they like, what experiences did they live through. My love of history is part of the reason I do genealogy. My desire to solve mysteries is a huge part of my passion for genealogy. And I do genealogy because I want my children and grandchildren to know and recognize the individuals over the centuries whose lives helped make us who we are today."
Genealogy isn't a pursuit well suited for those who require instant gratification. It's a long-term process and seems incredibly boring and tedious to those who are not like-minded. I've spent more hours scrolling through microfilm searching for that one entry with an ancestor's name, then I care to remember. Many people would consider those wasted hours. I don't.

Some of my family are not the least bit interested in our ancestors. Some are interested to a degree. Tell them stories of the more interesting or outrageous ancestors such as our daredevil Peer ancestor who walked Niagara Falls on a tightrope and they listen. Tell them about great great grandpa, the farmer in England, and their eyes glaze over. 

I once had a friend say to me "But why do you care? They're all dead!" and yet another said "They're not really your ancestors if they're dead." Hmmm... I can't quite get my head around that mindset!

Some are not interested in the treasured photos of ancestors. To me those are the icing on the cake! They make my ancestor "real" for me. One of my relatives told me she wasn't interested in seeing a photo of our 2nd great-grandfather. Why wasn't she interested? Because, she said "Why do I care what he looked like? I never knew him."

To me that's kind of the point. A photo allows us to "know" our ancestors. With a photo I can study faces and ponder over whether or not great-grandma's nose isn't just like one of my granddaughters.  I can imagine the ancestors in those photos living their daily lives, just as we do today. And I feel a connection to those people.

How about you? How would you answer my friend's question, "Why do you do genealogy?"

22 comments:

Susan D. said...

I can relate so much to your post, especially the impact of old photographs. It was the collection in my grandfather's house that set me on the ancestral trail at a young age - I still have my first handdrawn family tree I drew up around when I was 12. Becuase I have the photographs of my great grandmother, great aunt and uncles and my mother's brothers and sisters from childhood onwards, these ancestors are particularly vivid and "alive" to me. PLus being great topics for my blog!

Claudia's Genealogy Blog said...

I do genealogy to find the people that made me who I am. And I do love the pictures and also look to see who I look like.

Sonja Hunter said...

When I first began doing genealogy 10-12 years ago I wanted to see if I could push my tree back by a couple of generations (I started at ground zero so I didn't have much to begin with). Soon, I wanted to know more about the people I had found. What I have discovered is that even those who seem to have led ordinary lives can still be quite interesting if you dig deeper. I have written life stories for a few and they have become quite real people to me and some of my family. This makes me hope that perhaps my descendants will show an interest in knowing more about me and the people I love (though we too live ordinary lives). Now it's my job to give them enough information to help them along.

scjohanson said...

All your reasons for doing genealogy are mine. I'm going to save this post and send it to the next person who asks why I love searching for the history and mystery of my families' past.

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Susan D - that is how I feel too. My ancestors become "real" for me as I learn about them and see their faces

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Sonja - that is one of my reasons too - I hope that 100 years from now someone somewhere is looking for me. I would like to be more than a name on a tombstone or on a census page.

Because I have no control over whether or not that will happen (although I can do things to increase the odds!) I feel I need to do the same for my ancestors. Find them and allow them to be more than a name on a tombstone or in a dusty ledger book.

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Claudia - quite right! We are made up of those who went before!

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Scjohanson - good idea! :-)

Anonymous said...

Unlike many I have met, I started late in life. My father and all my grandparents were gone. One day I asked myself "Who am I?" I am a scientist (engineering) and have a good comprehension of genetics and DNA: as such I know I am the product of many people. It is genealogy that helps me "put flesh on the bones" to know who those people are (were?). Now I can answer my own question.

Mariann Regan said...

You make some excellent points. I'd add that our ancestors are our history, and most people would say that we study history to get a perspective on the present. And of course we can "know" dead people and even imaginary people: look at all the books and movies and documentaries--about fictional and historical characters--we follow with such rapt attention. Finding out more about human nature is an endless pursuit, and endlessly entertaining. And it's good for us!

Lorine McGinnis Schulze said...

Good point Mariann. I believe we need the past to carry on in the future. And yes, history is fascinating!

a3Genealogy, Kathleen Brandt said...

Well said!

Damian said...

Well said! I do genealogy because its both an empowering and humbling experience. It reminds me that my life is just a small chapter of a long, continuously unfolding epic story. Whether farmer or aerospace engineer, each ancestor or branch I discover provides a new perspective on my place in the world. Also, as a first-generation Italian-American, I feel it's my duty to pass along family history to future generations of my family. Even if most of them may not care, it is an honor to do it for the handful that will.

Janet Smith said...

My Genealogy search started with my Grandmother and Grandfather when I was a teenager. It started with a dusty old box of photos that Grandma was bound and determined that Grandpa was going to identify because "someone will need to know these people someday!", she stated. It started on a summer afternoon when I had made plans to be busy with my friends doing things that teenagers did! Grandma changed all that when she told me I needed to help her. She did not give me an option. She said " Janet, I will hand you the photo and your job is to write the name on the back of it!" I protested but it did not do any good. So for the next hour or two, (it seemed like an eternity) I sat at the picnic table while Grandma flashed the old photos up for Grandpa to see just like a flash card. Grandpa would tell her the name of the person and she would hand me the card and I wrote the name on the back of the photos. I scribbled as fast as I could and miss spelled many of them. I was so happy to be done with the job and off to play with my friends. "What a stupid thing to do on a summer day," I thought.

Fast forward 30 years, Grandpa and Grandma are long gone and my Father is as well. My new husband is "into" genealogy so I buy him a software called Family Tree Maker so he can put his info in a more readable format. I decide what the heck...I will just put in the people that I "know". Fifteen years later I am still putting in the people I know. I found the photos which I had written on a few months after I began this journey. They are priceless to me! Somehow my Grandmother knew back then that I would be the holder of all this important family information. She knew that I would need to know these faces on the dusty old photographs. I am touched by their faces and honored to know that they live on because know them!

Did not mean to ramble but that is why I do genealogy...and I know that you all feel the very same way.

Lauri said...

Loved your article. I do genealogy to organize the pictures so the people in them aren't lost, and also to put together thie story of how we fit together. I don't work on it as much as I used to, mainly cleaning up sources and other information but there are some mysteries I still want to solve.

Eddie B said...

I grew up in a family that told family stories, attended family reunions, belonged to hereditary societies, and owned published family histories.

I liked the family cook outs with all of my second cousins, going to school with my third and fourth cousins. I even liked funerals, cause the family gathered. Family has always been an important part of my life.

My mother’s first cousin was a professional genealogist who started working on family history in the 1930’s; while preparing to publish a genealogy she hired me (a teenager) to photograph gravestones, family homes, family artifacts, and copy old photos. On my 14th birthday she gave me a post binder filled with blank family group sheets. She identified a colonial immigrant ancestor of mine (not one of hers) that she said no one had worked on.

So for the last fifty years I’ve been working on finding all of the descendants of that immigrant. And I strayed … I started looking for records of all the people beyond the trees and the turn of the last century published histories … looking to confirm with modern genealogical standards, the history that had been handed to me.

It’s the chase … there is always more to find … it has me hooked. It’s the love of family.

I think its still the same for me.

Anonymous said...

Yes, all of the above and more. Being adopted I began learning genealogy as a child researching my adopted fathers family. I realized who I am just because I was his daughter and our bond was so strong. But little did I realize I needed to complete the whole me until I researched my birth parents families. And I have found treasure beyond compare in meeting some of them for the first time. My adult children now have a better picture of how my ancestors both adopted and birth had an impact on who we are as a family.
I am so lucky.

Cassmob (Pauleen) said...

Great post Lorine and my own reasons today would tally with yours. When I started out it was to learn where my German name came from as I knew nearly nothing about my ancestral families. Now it's about bringing their stories to life, documenting who they are and determinedly pursuing those little details no matter how long they take.

I thought Janet's grandmother was very clever in how she dealt with the photos, roping her into the process. Photos really are gold as we look into ancestor's eyes and sense them as a person. Dead? Not if we can help it.

Anonymous said...

Growing up, I always heard stories that I was related to "so-and-so," "so-and-so", and "so-and-so," ect... who were interesting to me! I come from a family who passed down family trees, photos, stories, and family heirlooms. One tree was created by a great grandfather and went back to the 1600's, Colonial America! Another side passed down to my mother she was descended from French. Documents were lost and none of it was "proven" to genealogy standards so I went out to find if it was true - YES it was! I have four lines traced to the 1600's so far with 6 months of looking off-and-on (Maybe 3-4 times a month deliberately). Some genealogists had books written about my ancestors - exciting! Turns out they were very involved in historical America. I carried a sense of pride from it - that I had "high" standards to live up to - but a doubt to its legitimacy b/c others would ask if it was true. They would still have doubt when I said the family knew. Now I KNOW it is true, and I know about much MORE interesting, successful ancestors! I have "proved" it to genealogical standards and to myself! My family never had doubts, but I did because of the stories that many "legends" passed down are not true. I'm an "evidence" person because of my "high" standards. 5% wasn't true about a couple of people (at least as far as I know) - the ancestry wasn't "direct" - it was through a marriage, but it's still interesting that their descendants are related to me!

It makes me feel even more connected to America and feel proud about the impact my ancestors made on it! Also, I now know completely where ancestors came from when immigrating to America - now "true" from the "legends." There was more English than I realized!

Anyhow, it's very rewarding!

Guest said...

Growing up, I always heard stories that I was related to "so-and-so," "so-and-so", and "so-and-so," ect... who were interesting to me! I come from a family who passed down family trees, photos, stories, and family heirlooms. One tree was created by a great grandfather and went back to the 1600's, Colonial America! Another side passed down to my mother she was descended from French. Documents were lost and none of it was "proven" to genealogy standards so I went out to find if it was true - YES it was! I have four lines traced to the 1600's so far with 6 months of looking off-and-on (Maybe 3-4 times a month deliberately). Some genealogists had books written about my ancestors - exciting! Turns out they were very involved in historical America. I carried a sense of pride from it - that I had "high" standards to live up to - but a doubt to its legitimacy b/c others would ask if it was true. They would still have doubt when I said the family knew. Now I KNOW it is true, and I know about much MORE interesting, successful ancestors! I have "proved" it to genealogical standards and to myself! My family never had doubts, but I did because of the stories that many "legends" passed down are not true. I'm an "evidence" person because of my "high" standards. 5% wasn't true about a couple of people (at least as far as I know) - the ancestry wasn't "direct" - it was through a marriage, but it's still interesting that their descendants are related to me!

It makes me feel even more connected to America and feel proud about the impact my ancestors made on it! Also, I now know completely where ancestors came from when immigrating to America - now "true" from the "legends." There was more English than I realized!

Anyhow, it's very rewarding!

Patty said...

I really like what one of the anonymous writers said about the connection of history and genealogical pursuits. I remember during one of my visits to the family farm as a child, my grandfather insisted on, among other tasks, teaching me to recite the US presidents in chronological order- I believe I was about 10 years old then. I marveled that he could also say his own ancestry out loud, including their vital information and continued to do so until his death at the age of 98. It's likely my desire to honor him and those that have passed on that is my reason for pursuing genealogy. I feel the need to tell their stories as accurately as possible to my children and grandchildren so that they might know the role, large or small, they played on the stage of "history."

Gail Park said...

In 2005 scientists at Emory University’s Center on Myth and Ritual in American Life, studied family conversations and how they affect children.
They studied children between the ages of 9 and 12 and those children’s exposure to family stories told by parents and grandparents. When they checked those children a few years later, they found that the children who heard stories about their families from the time before they were born were more secure, and had a stronger sense of self and better self-esteem. Knowing our Family History affects our sense of who we are, our sense of meaning, even about what it is to be human.