Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Indiana Jones and the genealogical pursuit

My 2-month old is down for a rare nap and not only was I inspired yesterday to write about this but Cousin April over at Digging Up the Dirt on My Dead People just wrote about this too so it look like it was meant to be!

First, the thoughts that were going through my mind - yesterday I was watching a documentary on Indiana Jones and real life archaeology and as with anytime I see or hear anything about history, it was making me itch to do some genealogy. And while I was thinking how cool it would have been to be out in the field, in search of mystery and adventure, like an archaeologist like Indiana Jones and lamenting the fact that the golden age of archaeology was long over, I was thinking about how genealogy is kinda like archaeology, because the fieldwork is so important to finding and solving those mysteries about our family trees.

So Cousin April was talking about the broadcast yesterday on Radio Boston about the impact of technology on genealogy - please visit the link above to read more about the interview and April's opinions on it. As I've stated before, I love that the Internet has exposed more people to genealogy and piqued their interest in it, that it's made more documents and databases available to us and helped us break down previously impassable brick walls, and that it has helped us connect with distant family members and share our collective knowledge about our trees. The Internet has also, unfortunately, helped spread a lot of bad information, because it's so easily accessible; it has made genealogy a copy-and-paste hobby for a lot of folks; and it has made some people forget (or maybe they never realized!) the importance of genealogical fieldwork. It's not just about finding your grandparent's address in a census on - it's, if possible, visiting the address or neighborhood and seeing if the house is still there and how much the neighborhood has or hasn't changed. It's not just finding a death certificate or record on Familysearch - it's going to the cemetery to visit the headstone (or lack thereof - that alone will tell you whether or not your family was poor or well-off) and seeing if you can find out who else might be buried there and who the plot belongs to. And it's realizing that some of the most pertinent information you are seeking probably ISN'T online - it's in a tiny church's hand-written recordbooks, or in an old newspaper that's only available on microfilm at the library, or in the dusty archives of your local town hall, or maybe even in your own grandmother's photo album or diary.

So, technology, yay; but also, fieldwork, yay.

The other thing I was contemplating as I fell asleep last night was how multi-disciplinary genealogy is, which Cousin April also touches on. Genealogy doesn't happen in a vacuum. It happens in a geographical area, and it happens in a historical time period. It's not just about collecting names and dates, although that can be fun. It's about what happened in between the birth date and death date, about our ancestor's lives. I love a name and date when I've finally broken through a brick wall, but eventually, I want a place, too, and maybe an occupation. In my dreams, all my ancestors would be fleshed out individuals - I would be able to know their whole stories. That will never happen. But each of us has at least one ancestor we can round out - when and where did they live? Did they grow up on a farm or in the city? Did his mother die when he was young? Did he have any siblings? Did he follow in his father's occupational footsteps? Did he emigrate to another country? Why did he - were the reasons economic? Religious? Was he escaping a war? Was he a youngest son with no other prospects? Was he just an adventurous spirit? Are there any newspaper articles about him? Was he a productive member of society? Was he a social misfit or pariah? When he died was he able to afford a funeral? His own cemetery plot? A headstone? Are there any photos? Do I have his eyes or his mouth? His temperament? These are the things I want to know as a genealogist. These are the mysteries I want to solve. When it comes to genealogy, I want to be Indiana Jones - how about you? :)


  1. This is a wonderful post. I'm happy your little girl napped so you could write this.

    I try to stress to new genealogists that what is online is just a fraction of the resources available to them; to get the real gems, the truly juicy nuggets one must do the field work or at the very least explore vital records that are not digitized.

  2. If you hadn't gone to the cemetery, you wouldn't know that Charles Haas was a veteran, of the Civil War, with a nice thick file waiting for you in the National Archives. Good on you Mary.