My mother is big genealogy enthusiast. Her enthusiasm, however, is unmatched by many in our family. I mean, we’re glad someone‘s doing the research, but we don’t seem to get that same spark of awe which for her is so inherent to the process.
So she wrote this thing, exploring what we learn from genealogy; the individual effects of the great sweeps of history.
I share it here with permission.
Much of what we can know of our ancestors has to be suppositioned by our knowledge of history and prevalent customs of their times. The lives of most of these people did not make a big splash. Many were illiterate and, as a result, did not leave much documentation of their experiences. Life was frequently short due to lack of medical discoveries that are so much a part of our current lives. But I would suspect that they lived more in the moment than we do now. So much was out of their control, they had little choice but to focus on the things that were occurring, leaving the rest in the hands of God. Given the difficulties of sustaining life, as an aggregate, what they accomplished was remarkable.
Each era had its own agenda, but the commonalities remained the same for several hundred years of our country’s history. People married young, reproduced prolifically, and attempted to provide for their children. Many of the accomplishments were a result of this drive. Starting with the Pilgrims and the indentured servants of the South, our ancestors were seeking an environment that would provide opportunities to build lives for themselves and their progeny. The hardships they endured were more than many of us could even consider, but the conditions that existed in their current lives spurred them forward. Whether it was religious convictions or abject poverty, they all made the leap. They got on a boat with little real knowledge of what they would meet and forged our future. The heroes are the many people who will never appear on a family tree because they died in the process of trying to reach this goal. It was the sheer numbers of people who would make this attempt that made our ancestors successful. It created a movement that would be reproduced in 1700’s and the 1800’s and would populate this country with Europeans.
Family life could have many variables, but the notion of childhood is very recent idea. Children were loved and cherished, but expected to participate in sustaining livelihood from a very early age. Frequently their mothers, and sometimes their fathers, were nothing but children themselves. Many people had multiple marriages due to the loss of a spouse. You could not remain unmarried once you had begun family building. It was impossible to continue the care of your children and the growth of your farm without two adults, and, in many cases, young adults to keep up the work. The family home would be small and bursting with people. Every space would be a bedroom at night. This caused the older children at a young age to look to new options. Friends and relatives who had moved further west would encourage these young people to join them. Single men and women would be told that there were many marriageable people waiting to find mates. Young couples would frequently be intermarried with sisters or brothers of a specific family with the thought that when they emigrated they would remain together. The reality of this westward movement was the disintegration of the original family unit.
Communication would be difficult. In this era of cell phones and e-mail, it is hard to imagine the absolute impossibility of keeping in touch. Frequently, several siblings would end up in the same location over time. The first arrivals would help their siblings establish themselves, and then they set to the task of recreating a new network of relations. The ones left at home were usually so young that they had little feeling for their older siblings. If the family was large enough, another move would be made by the younger children resulting in a separate conglomeration in a new location. Frequently an aged parent would die in the home of a child in the second migration.
There were, of course, some people who remained in the same location generation after generation. When you reconstruct the families through genealogy, they are our cousins. Our ancestors were the ones on the move.