The other day, a friend told me he was sick of hearing about genealogy, especially the part where people were discovering that they were related to the rich and famous. Ironically, I can understand how he felt. I still remember being a little boy and having my grandfather show me yellow-looking pictures of people with their shirts and dresses buttoned up to the chin. No one in the pictures ever smiled, either. They looked miserable. I would just roll my ten-year-old eyes.
Then my grandfather would say, “this is your great-great grandfather and grandmother.” Every picture had a story, and every story seemed more boring than the one that came before. The worst part was when we would visit old cemeteries, and my grandfather would stop at every stone of every ancestor buried there, and tell me all about that person.
This made no sense to me. I found it tiresome and monotonous, and the whole thing wore me out. I couldn’t for the life of me understand how ancestors who were dead could be interesting to anyone. And so it went, pretty much, until 2001. That was the year Senator Orrin Hatch’s resolution was passed by Congress. The resolution specified October as being National Family History Month, and all of a sudden, genealogy was in vogue.
Soon there seemed to be a new awareness of the influence of genes and their effect on hereditary diseases, which morphed into the use of DNA for tracing one’s ancestry.
In 2004, the British television show, Who Do You Think You Are? premiered on the BBC, featuring documentary episodes of celebrities discovering their ancestral roots. The show was adapted by Australia, Canada, Denmark, Holland, Ireland, Israel, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, and in 2010, the United States.
No one really knows how many people are actively researching their ancestry today. How could they? There is no way to measure the exact number of people visiting libraries, archives and cemeteries, consulting online genealogy sites, let alone the ones Googling their ancestors. Yet, it is clear that genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies among Americans.
What do these people see in tramping through graveyards or touring dank record repositories in search of scraps of information about ancestors who have been dead more than a century? Actually, they see themselves. Ancestry is popular because it deals with every one’s most prized topic: the self. The ego wants to know everything about its own identity. It is constantly asking itself questions.
- Who am I?
- What does my surname mean?
- What traits have I inherited?
- Do I come from royalty?
- I’ve always heard that I am part Native American. Is that true?
- If my ancestors were slaves, what part of Africa were they from?
- Are there any diseases to which I am susceptible because of my genetic history?
These are the kinds of questions that bombard the minds of ancestor finders, and fill them with an overwhelming urge to search for the answers.
Yet a lot of people hesitate to begin researching their family trees because of genealogy’s reputation for being difficult, not to mention a little bit stuffy and boring. Sometimes, these feelings of intimidation can be overcome by looking at genealogy as a game or hobby, rather than something you have to accomplish. View it as something that can be experimented with, a little at a time.
Gradually, the genealogical detective in you will begin to take over. You’ll start out digging for facts about your immediate family, and soon you won’t be able to resist telling your other relatives what you’ve found. In turn, that can motivate them to share their own family stories with you. Before you know it, the whole ancestor hunting process will become an addiction, but one that provides great satisfaction.
One of the first areas of satisfaction concerns your health. Certainly you’ve had your doctor ask you questions about the medical history of your mother and father. That’s because diseases can be passed down between generations through heredity. Imagine the advantage of knowing about health issues of your historical relatives, and how having this information can enable you and your children to take preventive measures against any hereditary diseases.
Suppose you discover that your grandparents suffered from high blood pressure. This knowledge may enable you to avoid this illness through a healthier diet and more exercise. Furthermore, you can ensure that your children do the same.
If you find out that you have probably inherited a susceptibility for certain illnesses, such as addiction to drugs or alcohol, you can then make enlightened lifestyle choices. Rather than keeping this kind of information to yourself, you can inform your relatives of these family health history trends so that they and their children are also aware of them.
Of course not all of the ancestral information you uncover will be crucial. Some of it will be just plain fascinating. You may discover where your family comes from in the beginning, and what your surname actually means. You can learn whether some member of your family was ever awarded a coat of arms, and see what it looks like.
Researching your family tree can provide you with information about family heirlooms that you own, which will add new layers to their meaning. You may discover a famous ancestor, or an infamous scoundrel in your past. You are sure to learn about family burial places, which can become interesting venues for a future family holiday. You and your children will undoubtedly become adept at using the Internet and the library for research.
The time you spend on genealogy will not be wasted, but invested. The time spent researching your own ancestry will reveal information that will enable you and your family to stay well and take informed pride in your heritage.