Jul 292016
Fears our Ancestors faced in the Dance of Death

The “Dance of Death” stained glass windows in the Bern, Switzerland Munster give a graphic illustration of the fears our ancestors faced.

Understanding the fears our ancestors faced can help us understand their lives. That, in turn, can help us tell their stories. Although it’s hard to know from the meager records we unearth whether an ancestor was an introvert or adventurer, we can form some theories based on historical context. We can also get a better grasp on their everyday lives.

Dangers of their Times

Reading BBC Magazine’s10 Dangers of the Medieval Period” made me want to crawl in a hole on behalf of my ancestors.  Dr. Katharine Olson’s description of the plague alone is stomach turning. Our ancestors didn’t simply fear getting sick and dying within a week, leaving their offspring to fend for themselves. The plague was a disgusting, oozing, disfiguring way to go.

Other dangers lingered for centuries—until the arrival of better medicine and social services. Even in established communities, famine, child birth, infant and child mortality, and violence from other humans were among the fears our ancestors faced on a regular basis.

As you write about your ancestors, contemplate how they would have dealt with those fears. Which ones would have kept them awake at night? Which ones did they face simply because they had no other options? For instance, when pioneer women had ten or more children, they must have worried about who would raise their existing children if they died in childbirth with number 11 or 12?

Pre-20th century travel was laborious at a minimum. Most of the time it was fraught with danger. I wonder what my immigrant ancestors would think of our modern transportation, safety devices, and roadside lodgings. They crossed oceans with babes in arms; I put my dog in a seatbelt device to drive two miles to the vet.

Fears our Ancestors Faced Due to Religion or Heritage

Fears our ancestors faced weren’t just related to the times in which they lived. Their own heritage or faith could make life dangerous.

Jewish ancestors would have faced brutal antisemitism throughout history, not just in the 20th century. How do you think they coped with that, generation after generation?

In many countries, including colonial America, bucking the established church would not only endanger one’s immortal soul. Practicing your faith could put you in mortal danger.

Researching your ancestors’ allegiance (or lack thereof) to the religious authorities of their times can be truly enlightening.  For instance, in SmithsonianMag.com’s “America’s True History of Religious Tolerance,” Kenneth C. Davis reports that the idea of America as a “welcome melting pot in which everyone was free to practice his or her own faith” is a myth. On the contrary, he says that “the real story of religion in America’s past is . . . often awkward, frequently embarrassing and occasionally bloody.”

Sometimes, putting food on the table meant denying your heritage. For instance, I have a friend whose Polish ancestors in Minnesota changed their last name to “Cullen” in order to find work. The only other option was to move elsewhere.

Comparing your Ancestors to their Compatriots

Fears Our Ancestors Faced - Crossing the Mississippi River

How did your ancestor compare with his or her compatriots.

Were they early on the curve of people to immigrate to a different land? Were they holdouts? Were they a part of high-society or did they live hand-to-mouth? The answers to questions like these will help you figure out whether your ancestors decisions were acts of courage or desperation. Or both.

Sue Cromwell, a genealogist here in Farmington, Michigan, points out that estate inventories list possessions and give clues to an individual’s standing in the community. Likewise, census reports will reveal their education levels, whether they took on boarders or had servants in the household, and the size and value of their real property.

Your Turn:

What fears did your ancestors face? How did you research the particulars? How did you write about it?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

Feb 232016
Misrepresenting the past and preventing myths

How do keep those myths at bay? How do you avoid misrepresenting the past?

How do we avoid or minimize the risk of  misrepresenting the past as we tell our own and family stories? What exactly is our burden of due diligence when it comes to determining the accuracy of our narratives?

This isn’t my normal soap box about truth versus accuracy. Or at least not entirely. The truth of our experience often comes down to our unique memory of it. Our memory is our truth whether or not a sibling thinks it was a Pepsi and not a Coke. We’re not talking about that type of accuracy.

Can we avoid misrepresenting the past?

Continue reading »

Feb 042016

Stories of the heart - heart specialists We all knew that I think that stories of the heart are the future of family history, but I have some good company. Steve Rockwood, CEO of FamilySearch International emphasized that in his opening keynote for Rootstech.

Serious genealogists made up the majority of the 12,000 in-person audience. (Estimates including online audience range up to 125,000.) “To get and keep non-genealogists’ attention,” Rockwell explained, “you have to focus on the person, not records.” He also emphasized that stories need to be short and meaningful–stories of the heart. Continue reading »

Nov 232015
National Day of Listening Logo

The National Day of Listening encourages us to “Ask Great Questions. Share Great Stories.”

The day after Thanksgiving has its own traditions. Leftover day. Get out the Christmas Decorations Day (my house). The ironic Black Friday.

It’s also StoryCorps’ National Day of Listening. Unlike Black Friday, when we’re encouraged to eschew all our thankfulness and contentedness, the National Day of Listening nurtures the feelings of gratitude.

Suggestions for National Day of Listening

For StoryCorps, listening is only the first step of the National Day of Listening. They also encourage participants to record and upload interviews to share with family and friends and StoryCorps followers. Continue reading »

Nov 022015
Lincoln Cathedral facade looking for bond with 20th great grandmother

Gazing up at the Lincoln Cathedral’s facade, I tried to imagine it as my 20th great grandmother would have seen it.

Visiting Lincoln (UK), I wanted an emotional bond with my 20th great grandmother. Foolish as it sounds, I wanted to get a feel for her life. I wanted to know her a little.

Unlike London, which has changed so much over the centuries, Lincoln felt like a place where my forbearers might materialize. As my son and I munched on sandwiches in Minster square, the echoes of centuries of footsteps were almost audible. I could imagine my 14th century relatives, walking through the gates and looking upon the Lincoln Cathedral’s already centuries-old beautiful façade.

A horse-drawn carriage pulled up, taking on a mother and son for a city tour. The boy was sporting a wooden shield and sword as well as an impish smile. I wondered how many times that scenario occurred in the 558 years between my 20th great grandmother’s death and my birth?

Can such basic human experiences roll the centuries away? Continue reading »

Oct 292015
RootsTech announces that their opening session will include Bruce Feiler and Paula Williams Maddison.

RootsTech announces their opening session keynote speakers: Bruce Feiler, Paula Williams Madison, and Stephen Rockwood.

If you weren’t already planning to attend Rootstech 2016, today’s announcement of its keynote speakers might have you searching for flights to Salt Lake City. The world’s largest family history conference’s opening session on February 4, 2016 will start with New York Times bestselling author Bruce Feiler, award-winning journalist Paula Williams Madison, and the president and CEO of FamilySearch International, Stephen Rockwood. Continue reading »

Oct 222015
Social Media to tell your stories with likes and dislikes

Does it make sense to use social media to tell your stories? Will it help you find the audience the episodes of your past warrant?

There are apps that will compile your Facebook posts into a book—like a personal version of World book Encyclopedia’s Yearbooks. It’s an interesting idea, but does it make sense to use social media to tell your stories?

If I were to compile my posts into a story, I’m not even sure I’d be interested in it. Last summer, for instance, I posted various pictures of birds, frogs, and turtles distributed between public confessions about lame-brained things I’d done. If I bore myself, how would readers receive it?

But perhaps that’s my fault. I wonder if people would be more invested if I put myself  more “out there.” On the other hand, even though I’m willing to wear my heart on my sleeve in speaking engagements, books, and this blog, something about social media makes me more emotionally reticent. Baring my soul isn’t quite like putting my life story on a bumper sticker, but it’s on that spectrum somewhere. Continue reading »

Aug 312015
What would my ancestor think of me? At Losely Park in Surrey UK

As I visited the former home of Sir George More, I wondered, “What would my ancestors think of me?”

What would my ancestors think of me?

I had my doubts recently, as I traipsed around the UK, seeking out locations where my ancestors lived and died. As I visited Loseley Park in Surrey in England, the manor home where my ancestors enjoyed an aristocratic life-style in the 17th century. Family members not only hob-nobbed with royalty, but also acted as treasurer for Henry Frederick, the then Prince of Wales and served in Parliament under King James.

As I embarked on our trip, I planned to visit “ancestral sites” more in an effort to “feel the dust of my ancestors’ shoes,” rather than to research. (I was traveling with a son who is not into genealogy.) As we drove up the long winding road to the estate, I realize they my ancestors probably seldom felt the dust of their own shoes. They would have had staff to prevent most dust-ups, and were their footwear to acquire undesirable soil, said staff would have removed the dust or other offending matter. Continue reading »

Jul 092015
Cousin once removed by way of staple remover on family tree.

A cousin once removed isn’t what (or who) it sounds like it is.

Why was my cousin once removed? Maybe that’s why my family dispensed with the first cousin, second cousin, and once removed nomenclature when referring to cousins: They knew I’d ask a bunch of questions, most of which would begin with “Why…” Cousins were just “cousins.”

“Once removed” doesn’t sound anything like it means. Unlike its general use in the English vernacular, when it’s used to describe family relationships, removed simply means from a different generation. I now think of it as “more distant in age.” A first cousin once removed might be a first cousin of my parents’ generation or my children’s generation. (See Genealogy.com’s primer.) Continue reading »

Jun 182015
crest share surname history

A crest isn’t the only way to share surname history. Share stories too!

Aside from the “cock” part and the inherent playground emotional trauma that comes with bearing it, the Hedgecock name has a lot to be proud of.

Since I only adopted that name after my marriage, I confess to letting a giggle of two escape at some of the Hedgecock name jokes. “Bush-chicken,” for instance. My husband and sons fail to see the humor. Continue reading »