What does researching our ancestors tell us?

The first ancestor I chose to research in detail lived in Quebec City two centuries ago. Her birth took place during a war. She married a carpenter at 18, bore 10 children, grieved the death of four children, and died at 38 years old.

Other than feeling grateful for an easier and longer life than hers, what did I gain by learning her story?

More importantly, why should you, my reader, care about her?

There are lots of answers to this, depending on who you are, what you’re doing and what you need. For me, all these reasons can be described in a single word: hope.

Hope

Why hope?

As I write about the lives of women who lived in Canada so long again, it’s impossible not to compare their lives to mine. They made fewer choices, bore more children and faced more illness, war, and turmoil than I have so far.

Yet the lives of my ancestors in a long-ago Canada match those of many women in countries around the world now. I can’t help but hope that we can share good food, technology, and resources to improve their lives too. Everyone should have infinitely easier, varied and more diverse lives than that of our ancestors.

Discover who we are

I also write to learn about myself. If you’re one of my relatives, perhaps you read my stories hoping to learn something about yourself too. We both want to know how the lives of our ancestors affected those of our grandparents and parents. At the very least, their choices affected where we grew up, our mentors as children and the culture we were borne into.

Our ancestors choices, their children’s survival, and their genetic health risks continue through us and our children.

Their stories, if we can discover them, might illuminate some of the personality quirks in our family. I suspect our long line of strong independent women began with the woman featured in my first story.

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Connecting to Others

The more I research my ancestors, the more links I find to cousins and other people connected to my family either through blood, historic friendship or past quarrels. Anyone in the world might be related somehow.

Judy Russell wrote about discovering some of these lost family members via genealogical research and new DNA tools a few years ago in “Oh Charlie” at http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog/2014/02/02/oh-charlie/. Her article makes me consider genetic testing.

Researching our ancestors and sharing about the experience enables all of us to contribute to a wider understanding about who we are, what we’ve been and where we live in a bigger context too.

Learning about our World

Even if we aren’t related in any way, the stories genealogists tell have lessons for anyone interested in righting past wrongs, illuminating communities or exploring a particular place. Janice Hamilton’s research on one of her ancestors, for example, has provided helpful background to a group of locals who provide tours of the Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal. You can read her stories about the Baggs and the community they helped found at http://writinguptheancestors.blogspot.ca/.

Understanding Circumstances

So often, the stories we hear about the past are myths made up of half-truths. Looking into the details of an actual person’s life reveals a series of events that are complicated, nuanced and full of foibles. Circumstances often carry people in different directions than what might have otherwise been expected.

By figuring out what actually happened to whom and sharing any surprises we discover widely, we all get closer to the truth. Getting closer to truth creates possibilities for beauty, understanding and diversity.

Then again, maybe you’re different? Why do you research your family history?

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Tracey Arial

About the Author

Tracey Arial

Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.

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