August 2, 2008

Connecting Genealogy With History

A lot of the fun of genealogy is finding details beyond names, dates and locations. What is more thrilling than discovering an obituary for an ancestor where we learn that Great Grandma Susan was an avid quilt-maker, went to church every Sunday and enjoyed her roses in the garden. Or that Great Great Grandpa Daniel loved his Dandelion Wine and was known to imbibe a bit too much on occasion.

Not everyone has a famous ancestor. In fact, most of us have ancestors who were hard-working men and women with little time to do much more than survive! So often the details of their daily lives are sketchy. If we are lucky enough to find a journal or diary that survived, we count our blessings and move on. Most of us will never be that lucky and so we have many ancestors who will remain a blur, a shadowy outline on our famiily tree.

But what about paths that cross in history? Have you ever considered looking beyond your direct ancestor to see who else may have connected with them during their lifetime?

For example, my grandmother McGinnis lived on Water Street in Guelph Ontario Canada, for much of her life. I have proof of that from census, family records, cemetery and burial records and so on. I remember going to her home as a child but hadn't seen it in years so I decided to take a trip to Guelph to see how many of the homes of my ancestors remained.

As we drove down Water Street, I saw a Historic Plaque for the home of John McCrae (1872-1918), the Canadian Physician and poet who wrote "In Flanders Fields"

Grandma lived only 2 houses away. The thought flashed through my mind - I wonder if he and Grandma knew each other? Did they pass on the street and nod hello with a cheery "Good morning!"? Grandma McGinnis was born in 1880, she was 7 years younger than John McCrae. I wondered if they attended the same school in Guelph? Research revealed that John McCrae attended Guelph Collegiate and Vocational Institute (a local High School). So did my Grandmother and her 9 siblings. Surely some of them passed John in the halls!

Now, I am not claiming that my Grandmother was John McCrae's best friend. In fact I'm not claiming she knew him well at all. But Guelph is a friendly city and neighbours living that near each other must have at least exchanged a few pleasantries now and again. I like to think of Grandma and John chatting for a few moments about the weather ("Hot enough for you, John?") or the price of fresh vegetables.

Grandma's younger brother Edgar Peer fought in WW1, as John McCrae did. Edgar was killed in 1918, John McCrae died that same year. I sent for Edgar's military records and discovered that Edgar was was shot in the thigh during the Battle of Passchendaele and sent to the Field Hospital where John McCrae was treating the wounded soldiers. I am not saying that John tended to Edgar's wounds, but I do like to play the game of "I wonder if..."

Playing the game of "I wonder if...." helps me place my ancestors in historical context and thus gain a fuller appreciation of their lives. It is also a heck of a lot of fun!

2 comments:

ArtA said...

It's like you pulled the thoughts right out of my head with this post. I play the same game of "what if". I've found it interesting to find the names of people who were referenced in my ancestors' vital records, such as the minister who may have married a certain pair of ancestors, and then look them up on census records to see where they lived, how close together they lived, etc. It helps bring their lives to life for me.

Laura said...

One of the reasons I became interested in genealogy was because of my love for history. I would sit in history class and wonder how my ancestor fit into the time period we were studying. It made history all the more fascinating to me and still does. It has also helped me show my daughter how history affects us all. She is able to share with others how her ancestors were involved in this or that. I think it makes her feel special.