Trees are a common symbol for genealogy. Like lines of ancestry, trees contain many branches that are united through a common trunk but grow in their own direction. And like family history, we often only see the complexity of their roots when we start digging.
In a previous post, I outlined strategies on conducting the research of one’s home, and offered some thoughts on why home history is one of the most common ways in which ordinary people are interested by, think about, and interact with the past. These “resident histories” seem to have some commonalities with family history, as both topics connect the past with very intimate aspects of the everyday lives of people in the present. Like a home, a family is an emotional site that embodies the physical continuities with the past. Family history also illustrates change over time at a microcosmic level and within wider historical contexts.
Over the past year, my father has begun to research the history of my family. This weekend, I had an opportunity to sit down to ask some questions about his own experiences.
What sparked your interest in our family’s history?
When I retired, a former colleague spoke to me about how she thought we were related, going back about four generations. I went to her house and was politely bored as she shared with me her journey to trace her heritage to become an official United Empire Loyalist, or UEL. When I went home, I found myself Googling my surname and was surprised to find how much information was easily available. That experience, plus the recent death of my father at that time, started me on the road to researching my family’s background as well your mom’s family background.
What was your research strategy? Has it been easier or more difficult than you thought?
My research strategy was to start with what I knew and go back from there. The internet, local public libraries, people also interested in genealogy, and genealogy groups like the UEL and the Ontario Genealogical Society were my best resources. I have learned that just some days and weeks researching can provide an amazing amount of information which is very rewarding. Although the weeks of always finding “dead ends” are discouraging, when you find that source or lead that opens up that dead end the rewards make you ecstatic. Researching a family background in your non-native language poses other challenges, as your mom’s background takes me to Italian state sites – in Italian.
Did anything surprise you about our family’s history or the process of researching this history?
At a recent family reunion with relatives of Daniel Young who lived in the Niagara area in 1790, there was a presentation given by Young descendants stating that a recent analysis of their DNA made them conclude that they were related, but in a different way than church and state documents had stated. A family “secret” that was kept for over a hundred years was now being shared with other living relatives. I guess time offers the ultimate forgiveness.
You have to remember the different social context of your research period. I discovered that a great-grandmother remarried less than two months after her husband died. Initially, that didn’t give me good thoughts. When you discover that she had five children under the age of eight, the fact that she lived in a time when there was no welfare state, and that she didn’t have a child with her second husband for more than two years, you look at the situation differently. She needed someone to support her and her children and the boarder who was willing to do so was a viable solution.
Has researching our family’s history piqued an interest in the wider historical contexts in which our more personal past took place?
I have read history books about the different locations and time periods to better understand the wider picture about the times of the generations before me. It is one thing to read a book like The Burning of the Valleys (1997) by Gavin K. Watt to learn about the American Revolution, and a totally different experience to find out that the name of a relative who fought with the British forces in the Butler’s Rangers was a key player in the book. Reading books on the Italian immigration to the United States in the 1890s and their passage from Bianchi, Calabria to Oakes Avenue, “Blyn”, New York takes on a whole new meaning when you realize that your mom’s great-grandmother was on one of those ships. Discovering the online Ellis Island records showed that great-grandpa was heading to live at a street address in Brooklyn, New York, which has given me a strong desire to go to that street address today to connect with this past relative.
Have any documents or sources that you’ve discovered really stood out to you as a”goldmine” in your research?
The internet using Google has been really useful. One website that has been particularly helpful was a free Italian state site that allowed me to discover the birth place of your mom’s great-grandfather and the names of his parents. A fellow genealogist mentioned that he was digitizing funeral expense reports from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and this quickly allowed me to find a funeral expense account that gave additional proof that a great-grandfather was related to a previous unknown great uncle. The United Empire Loyalist website gave me information to find proof so that I could obtain my UEL certificate.
What value has the memories of those who were or are still alive in your research? In other words, what value has oral history had for you?
When I was discovering the treatments of Italians and their descendants in Canada during World War II, I was shocked to learn that Italians were sent to internment camps as well. My father-in-law told me that he remembered his father having to register at the local armoury so they could keep track of him. This still upset my father-in-law 70 years later, especially knowing that his father was born in the United States and had lived in the community since 1906. Again through oral history, grandpa could describe a family house from 1906 to me even though it was torn down in the 1970s.
Has anything you have learnt in the process of understanding our family history changed the way you look at society today?
It’s helped me to understanding how immigrant populations had to live to survive in different situations. The Jungs from the Palatine in Germany to New York in 1710, the Youngs on the Grand River Six Nations area in the 1800s, and the Pascuzzis landing at Ellis Island in the 1890s. These examples have helped me get a better understanding of the challenges of recent immigrants to Canada and how others react to them.
Ancestry.ca, a popular website for researching genealogy, has the following quote on its site: “Wonder why you’re drawn to the arts? Or where your love of seafood comes from? Or how you came to be such a proud Canadian? The answers are waiting for you in your family history.” Do you think that our own personalities might be linked to our ancestors?
I guess it is sort of like believing in your horoscope. If you believe, you read your day’s events as predicted by the horoscope. If you are a skeptic, you think they are reading too much into it. When family pictures are shown of relatives that lived two hundred years ago, and someone says you “look just like” a relative alive today, how do you answer that? When you discover a fifth cousin for the first time and you feel a strange type of connection, how do you explain that?
Do you have a final goal? Do you think family history research is more about the process of research, its final product, or both?
Receiving my UEL certificate was a goal when I started about four years ago. I believe it was something I could give to my future generations that could be easily found. I read a a book called Calabrian Tales (2002) by Peter Chiarella, where family tales, history, and literature are combined to tell the story of a brother-in-law of your mom’s maternal great-grandmother. Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (2007) is another popular example where a family story has been written to share history with others. I too hope to tell the names, dates, locations of our relatives in a story format to help make the experiences of our past relatives come alive to future generations.