Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Thoughts on Family History

8x8 inches, acrylic and gold leaf on canvas board
from a found black and white photo of two Wisconsin farm girls

Since retiring from teaching in 2006, I have been working at improving my painting, first in watercolors, later in acrylic and oils, and most recently in mixed media format.  Little by little I've been focusing on figures, especially those inspired by old photographs.  Sometimes the photos are from my family, and sometimes they are of anonymous people.  At first I fretted about whether I had achieved good likenesses in these small paintings, but I've stopped being concerned about that.  Since most of my work is very small, it's nearly impossible to include much detail, so I concentrate on the figure's posture, clothing, and attitude.  My hope is that people don't know for sure who the figures actually are, but see in them something familiar.  I hope the little paintings help people remember their own families.

I think my passion for old photographs come partly from my growing efforts in tracking down family history, something I have occasionally written about here.  I'm not sure where this comes from.  Mother collected old photos, repeated stories, wrote down as much family history as she could with her comparatively limited resources.  She often sent me copies of old photos, photocopies of diaries, birth certificates, and while I was mildly interested, I didn't put any effort into helping, or even encouraging her, something I now regret. After her death, I found myself with boxes of what she had collected, and decided to try and make sense of it.

I began with some simple genealogy software from Reunion, and that helped my understand family relationships better than I had on my own.  It also allowed me to print simple blank forms that I could give to family members to fill out, or sometimes served as a template to help me ask questions in an organized way.  But for me, the drawback was that my research was hard to share.  

The more I understood how my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and various cousins were related, the more fascinated I became.  I started doing online searches.  I began meeting distant cousins, documenting what they told me, and adding it all to the family tree on my computer.  I wrote to historical societies in other states, inquiring about people on our tree.  I took trips to meet my maternal grandmother's family in Washington, collected stories and photos there.  Besides doing Google searches, I began researching people on rootsweb.ancestry.com and familysearch.org, and findagrave.com - all free sites.  I joined the Genealogy Society of Walworth County, and pestered people there to help me find old newspaper clippings relating to our family, and I combed the old papers myself. I walked a lot of cemeteries.  I finally gave in and joined the subscription site, ancestry.com

Then I found a free online family tree hosting site, TribalPages.   I began transferring all my Reunion information to that site, which seemed simpler to me than Reunion, and allowed me to invite other family members to view the work, and also to add and edit information about their immediate families.  

One thing this process has taught me is that learning about my own family has helped me understand history much better.  I now have thousands of names in the data base, and in my mind I can see how people arrived in North Carolina, or Rhode Island, or Boston, or Montreal, and how the children and their descendents spread across North America, both in the United States and Canada, as homesteading land became available.  I've seen how interconnected we all are, and how completely Anglo-Saxon my ancestors were. We are mostly English and Irish and Scottish, with a few Norwegians and Germans thrown in.  For a long long time we were mostly farmers, teachers, preachers and railroad people, though that changed as the country changed, and these days it's hard to generalize about the work we do.  

Another thing I have learned is how wonderful it is to meet distant relatives, whether in person, or online.  Through this blog and my entries in Find-a-Grave, I have had people contact me through email and add what they know to the family story, a real thrill.  In the past couple months, two women who live far away contacted me and answered many of my questions about the Pierce family in South Dakota and in Canada.  I love learning more about these distant great aunts and uncles,and multiple times great grandparents, love the occasional photo that brings the names to life.

But I have also learned that many people are not interested in family history, and for a variety of reasons.  They might be young and busy with getting their own work and families started.  They might "only look to the future, not to the past," as one very mature cousin told me.  They might fear for their privacy, and be leery of questions. They might feel inadequate in using the computer.  They might just not be interested -  for whatever reason. I try hard to not antagonize them, though I try to keep the door open for their participation.

For me this research is a chance to understand how we all fit into history, how we are bound together by blood, and circumstance. It is a challenge, a puzzle, and an endless quest.

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