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’s “10 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
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.
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.