If you have ancestors who came through Ellis Island, consider donating. If the organization doesn’t get enough donations they’ll have to charge for what is now free access to the records. Pass this on to your family and friends.
As Independence Day in America approaches, I think about my personal family history, and how the names in my family tree helped build America. If genealogy is not your thing, you are probably missing the satisfaction of realizing how connected you are to those who built this country.
My Valley Forge Connection
For example, my husband has relatives who endured the conditions at Valley Forge, and if you know history, you know that even though no battles were fought there, the sheer determination of General George Washington and his troops just to survive and keep an army together set the stage of what was truly a miraculous revolution. Had my husband’s ancestor not survived–and he was in his 60s at the time!–my husband would not be here, and neither would my children.
And if I hadn’t researched that line I would not have found one of my favorite stories! William Thomson was court martial-ed for swearing at his superior officer, a man likely three decades younger than him. General Washington pardoned Thomson, saying he’d had good cause for his actions.
The Ultimate Sacrifice
But seriously, there are numerous examples of the sacrifices our ancestors made so that we might enjoy our freedoms in America. I think it’s safe to say not one American reading this post has not had a relative who died fighting for our freedom in a war. Sadly, there have been wars in every generation. Don’t those soldiers deserve to be remembered? To have their stories and the facts surrounding their lives recorded?
And even those who did not fight in a war, fought for survival, overcoming poverty, lack of education, poor English language skills, few resources other than a will to work hard and prosper. These things that drove our ancestors to build their places in American society are the kinds of stories I like to tell in my fiction.
What are the stories you’ve found of your ancestors’ sacrifices?
This is an awkward post for me to write, but I’m doing it because I want people to understand me better…or more likely, I want to understand myself better. When you read it, you’ll probably wonder what the big deal was. I’m not uncovering skeletons or confessing a sin. It will seem that way to you because you’re not me, so don’t feel bad.
Well, you might know that families are complicated. You might relate to that concept. And a disclaimer first: my family loves me, and I love them. Okay. Here goes…
Technically I was not an only child. I had three older sisters. (I say had because the oldest has passed away.)
Since there are nearly seven years between me and my closest sister, I’ve heard it said (by Dr. Kevin Leman and others) that puts me in the only child category. And quite honestly, it’s a lonely place to grow up.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my sisters, but truly they grew up without me there and that changes how a relationship develops.
|My mother and sisters long before me.|
Why am I telling you this? Because while I was attending a writing seminar a few years ago, the leader kept asking me why writing these family legacy type stories was so important to me.
|No siblings in several of my growing up pictures.|
“Because,” I said, “we can all learn so much from history and the sacrifices made for us.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because it’s important to know who you are.”
“Why is it important?”
“Uh, because then we will know where our place in the world is.”
“Why, why, why?”
Hmm…She made me search my heart and it came down to the loneliness. I need to feel connected to family because so often growing up, I did not.
There you have it.
That’s kind of a hard thing to admit, frankly.
So I started wondering…
Where is my place? How do I know I belong? What is the family legacy I need to pass on? Where does it start?
I imagine adopted people feel this even more strongly than I did, not to mention children raised in foster care. Everyone has to find that connection somehow. For some it comes through mentorship or close friends. Family gets redefined, and I think that’s the absolute right thing for some people.
For me, I had a family. They were just older than me, and different, and involved in activities I was not ready for. I was on a journey to find my place.
It started here:
I think I was about 13 or 14. My oldest sister (middle, in the big-legged pants and halter top) visited from California and we had a reunion with my mom’s side of the family. Always being the youngest (and most bored) I started collecting my relatives’ stories and recollections. Something you MUST do. Right now! All of you!
|Agee Family Reunion|
|This was taken in 1984 after we were all grown up. Technically. 🙂|
There are advantages to being the youngest by many years. If I can’t think of any, my sisters will. But as for genealogy, my situation drove me to study the branches on the tree, and therefore I learned a lot. And when I have time to keep looking, I will certainly uncover much more. Anyone who does family research knows it’s never ending and addictive.
Just a few of my discoveries:
- My grandfather did well during the Great Depression because he was the only manager of the only Kroger grocery in a fair-sized city.
- My grandmother’s paternal side lived for many years in Ohio (something I only recently learned) and one was a part of an antislavery movement near Cincinnati. I am pretty certain she never knew this.
- One ancestor died at home during the Civil War. He was brought home by his brother and because he died at home, his widow had a difficult time getting her pension.
- My Scots-Irish ancestors left Ireland not only to escape poverty but also because they didn’t believe in paying tithes to a church they didn’t belong to.
- One ancestor, when only a young boy, freed a slave he had been given as payment on a debt.
- Another ancestor after becoming a widow, moved her children to the wilds of Indiana where Indians were still a threat. She bought land (not usual for a woman in the early 1800s.) And they prospered there.
So, to rephrase another writer, “I write to know I’m not alone.”
Let’s face it. Some people just don’t care about tracing their roots. They’re more focused on today, just trying to get by, and some have enough trouble connecting with living relatives. Who needs all those names and dates?
But they should care, and here are some reasons why:
1. You should know where you’re headed.
Learning about those who came before you might just teach you where your future weakness might be and maybe, just maybe you can avoid some pitfalls. It might seem like a reach, but lots of traits, characteristics, and even illnesses are genetic. Once you understand that, you can work toward avoiding the mistakes your ancestors made.
2. You might find out you have a famous relative.
Being family, even far removed, might connect you to all kinds of gatherings and events you would have otherwise missed. Of course I’m thinking of baseball, but there are other possibilities. Who knows until you start digging? But even if you don’t have a celebrity relative to lay claim to, you might have an ancestor who was a military hero. You could become a member of the DAR or SAR.
3. You might find lost cousins.
Well, you likely will. When you look at the number of ancestors you have as the family lines branch out, there are certainly others out there researching the same lines. Not only can you share research and learn more, you might just make a friend!
4. You might dig up a story about an ancestor that will make juicy dinner conversation.
I discovered one of my husband’s ancestors was at Valley Forge. He was an older man, about 60, and was court martialed for swearing at his superior officer. He was pardoned by General George Washington, who ruled that the man had had just cause for his actions. My father used to tell me, “Stop researching when you find the horse thief in my family.” To date I haven’t found one…in his family. My mother’s? Well…
5. You may find a family treasure no one knew existed.
That treasure could be priceless, but if it’s not something you can take to the bank, it might be of extreme sentimental value or worthy of study to social historians. For instance, my husband found researchers continually referring to a family history written by a distant cousin in 1880. He found that the Ohio State Library had that hand written journal in its collection. When he went to see it he discovered it was not a copy, but the actual original. That was somewhat surprising because until then he hadn’t known any of his family lived in Ohio in 1880. Not only that, but the original had much more in it than what had been quoted by others. There is even a story told by a man who was a chaplain in the Civil War and witnessed much of Sherman’s march in the South. Eyewitness testimony that doesn’t appear anywhere else!
6. You might connect with a cultural heritage you hadn’t known existed before.
When I traced my father’s line I came up with surnames he had never heard before. And those he knew, like his mother’s parents, he had thought were Irish, but they were actually Welsh. Recently I’ve discovered another line that appears to have come to Ohio via Massachusetts and Nantucket. I’m thinking a research trip is in order!
7. Some things might begin to make more sense when you see how traits or occupations or favorite hobbies and pastimes are repeated.
There really is meaning behind the old adage of something being “in your blood.” My mother has always loved baseball. There are two professional players in her family line. I recently saw a picture of my great great grandmother and realized our family has been short in stature for some time. There are other less pleasant things you might learn, but they’re still important to realize how they’ve been passed down, such as alcoholism, weight gain, and other ailments.
|Photo by Tom Gill|
8. Perhaps only those who do begin to trace their roots can grasp it, but you will begin to feel that you belong, that there is a place for you, that you have a legacy to continue.
How many family members died in wars so that future generations can live in freedom? How many risked everything to come to a land where their children and children’s children can find work and prosperity? How many struggled to teach principles, values, and spiritual beliefs so that those who come after can have a foundation to prosper from? Once you realize the torch has been passed you to, it’s a game changer and you know many more will come after you and you want to leave them something as well.
Not every motivation to dig into genealogy is noble and romantic. It’s fun to discover new things. And I hope the skeptics out there who read this will realize it’s certainly not just about names and dates!
I’ve been working on a new website, and since it’s just me, myself, and I working on it, it’s taken me a while before I was ready to show it to the world. But here I am, finally, and I’m glad you stopped by!
With my new series with Tyndale House, I thought I needed a new website, and a new blog. A place where I can connect with folks who are interested in what I’m interested in: history, family legacy, Ellis Island, reading, and writing.
Check out the tabs above where you can find my books and where to purchase them, something about me if you’re so inclined, and some other stuff.
I’d love to hear your family stories. Where did your people come from? Do you know a lot or just a little? Would you like to know more?
I’ve been interested in genealogy for some time. I call myself an amateur genealogist, because I’m not professionally trained, and I’m not in the business of tracing other people’s roots for them. I like to hear the stories, and imagine what life was like for those people, and then create fiction. I also have been known to write some “how-to” articles for genealogy magazines. I may not write about your family exactly, but I what I do write might allow you imagine the world your ancestors lived in, what was important to them, how they grew spiritually through their life experiences, and maybe even how that affected you generations later.
What about you? Tell me something. I’m listening! 🙂