Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Social Science of Genealogy or Finding the Why?

Often times in genealogy there is a disconnect between the name of a person and the concept that this was a real person who had day to day struggles and made life decisions.  It's easy to get caught up in a static picture that of John Miller (1850-1910) who was a farmer.  But to get into the life of John Miller we have to look at where he lived, why he lived there and what he did on a daily basis.  You are more than dates and an occupation, so why limit John Miller to that too.

 Let's look at the whys of life rather than just the who, where and when

Location Why 
Knowing where relatives lived is interesting (census records are good for placing them in a location every ten years) but finding out why they got there or how they decided to pick that location is even more interesting.  It's one thing to look at immigrants, they left home due to war or famine or to seek new opportunity.  But it is another to look at where they went when they got here.  Did they move to a location because of a job specialty, because of a large ethnic population that matched them or did they have relatives here already?   Don't just accept that in 1870 your great great father is living in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.  Think about if he was there for work, living temporarily there after being discharge are the Civil War?  Understanding the world around him at the time helps us draw better conclusions.   

No two people are the same now and they weren't then either.  So how is it that two Irishmen get off the same boat in the same port but one ends up farming in Maryland and one ends up living in New York City.  Seeing why they went different ways will help understand them better as people.    

Occupation Why
Another thing to look at is what your distant relatives did for a living and why.  Most of us don't come from lines of Rockefeller so our relatives were working class folks.  But why did they choose that profession.  If your Italian relatives got off the boat and moved to the city and started a restaurant, was that because they had great cooking skills that they brought with them.  Many times people get into profession their parents were in.  Was your grandfather a farmer because his father was a farmer, or did he specifically not become a farmer because he had other aspirations?  I have a relative who had a farm but for a living had a business that blew up tree stumps with dynamite.  He may have obtained this skill during the Civil War and turned it into a career after discharge.   People both then and now use their skills and talents to make money.

Occupational and location can go hand in hand
The point is that names and dates don't tell the whole story and the genealogist job is to put him or herself into the mind of the person.  One last personal example, I have a relative from around the turn of the century that I followed in three censuses in the first one he was at home, the second he was in St. Louis and the third he was back at home.  I could read a lot into this but with further digging I found out that he was in the publishing business and since he had 3 bothers already on the farm he left to go to St. Louis which at the time was a hub for publishers.  While in St. Louis he contracted Tuberculosis during an outbreak of while he was there.  He came home so that he could die at home with his family.  Census records and dates won't tell that story and if I was guessing I would have thought homesick or unemployment.  But the real story is more meaningful to my family tree.   

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