I have been asked on more than one occasion why I am so interested in family history. Every so often I run into someone who doesn’t roll their eyes and wonder why I’m so obsessed. A couple years ago a former co-worker, who shares my interest in the hobby, pinned me down. He asked me to quickly put my reasons into written words. I came up with the following:
Why do I do genealogy? That is a big question that probably has multiple answers. But off the top of my head, I’d say that it is because I have an insatiable curiosity for my ancestors and to honor them I want to know more and share their stories. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. Here is what I’ve used for a dedication in the books that I’ve put together:
“I have been interested in genealogy since I first read a book written by my great-great-uncle. His book described the lives of my Norwegian ancestors who immigrated to Minnesota from Norway in the mid-1800s. I feel that each ancestor contributes at least a little bit to who we each become. I am very interested in knowing who my forebears were and thus seek to understand their lives.
Following are biographical notes, stories, and information about our ancestors. I collected the following for myself and for my children. I hope that someday they will share my interest in the people who came before us.
My body of work is dedicated to my sons. For CJ and EJ who are my hope for the future. In loving memory of Philip David, my little angel, who is already in heaven sharing his fantastic hugs with all the ancestors remembered here.”
I’d also say that I do genealogy because it is an addiction. Every time I’ve found someone I never thought I’d find or have had a major surprise in what I found, it has driven me to want to learn more and more. And now it has gotten so bad, that I even enjoy doing research and finding things out about people who are not even directly related to me…
(…or maybe I do genealogy because I’m good at it and I’d never be good at golfing or running marathons or quilting or other hobbies that consume others)
I’m not alone in having genealogy as a hobby. It is frequently cited as the second most popular hobby in the U.S. after gardening. It has been measured as the second most visited category of websites after pornography.
But why? Why do we care about our family trees? I’ve tried to come up with some common reasons.
Who Am I?
Sometimes people have very practical reasons for doing family history research. These can include adoptees searching for birth families or birth parents searching for their offspring. Sometimes people need to trace medical conditions or land ownership. And well, some people are forced to do it because it is required for a school project.
Most people have an inkling of where their families came from, but family history validates that knowledge. Was that Irish grandmother really Irish? Did those German ancestors come from Germany or was it really Poland? Studying your family tree may lead you to places that you had never before discovered.
Finding out more about your ancestors, these people who gave you your DNA, can also sometimes provide you with a better understanding or why you are who you are. Do you come from a long line of musicians? Do you have a pattern of strong women in your tree? Do your religious convictions have deep roots? Learning about those who came before you may give you insight into yourself.
Sometimes people do genealogical research in the hope of finding they are related to famous people or to be able to brag that they have a certain lineage. While it may end up being embarrassing if you find you are distantly related to some infamous character or to a president whose ideology you don’t share, it can be interesting to find that you share a distant grandparent with someone well known.
Knowing your lineage can sometimes lead you to memberships in organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), The General Society of Mayflower Descendants or even something more obscure like the Russian Nobility Association in America. Many of these organizations provide social and services opportunities.
For those who like solving puzzles, genealogy can become addicting. There is detective-like work required to fill in names on the family tree correctly. It is very satisfying to unravel a mystery or discover another branch to add to the tree. There is an indescribable thrill that comes from finally finding the answer to a problem that has plagued you for decades. Finding that the family stories passed down through the generations actually match facts, or at least lead you to the facts, can be exciting.
One of the biggest benefits of building your family tree can be finding connections to the past and the present.
You can find connections between yourself and historical events. It makes things more interesting, for example, when the civil war is discussed, to know that your ancestors were actually there. You may not care much about the American Revolution and think of it as abstract and far away, but if you learn that your ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, it can become a lot more real and fascinating.
A heightened sense of belonging can come from knowing that your people helped settle a community, worked in an important industry, served in the military, or even drove a certain car. The study of big historical events becomes more personal, but genealogy can also put into context more basic historical things like understanding that when Great-Great-Grandpa was little they didn’t have cars, when Great-Grandpa was a young man he spent $125 to buy a second hand 1917 Ford Runabout, when Grandpa was little they didn’t have TV, or even when your parents were young they didn’t have cell phones.
This hobby can connect and reconnect you with family. Genealogy isn’t always about going back in time. A lot of effort can be put into filling in the branches as current generations marry, have children and move around the world. Long lost cousins can be reconnected via this hobby and being the family historian, you might be the one to actually know ‘who is who’ at a family reunion.
They Were People
It can be comforting to understand that our ancestors faced some of the same problems that we do today, and they survived. Even centuries ago, people were falling in love and raising families and suffering loss. They celebrated and feasted and mourned. Learning about their traditions and rituals can be enlightening or make us shake our heads. If you are lucky enough to find old family recipes, you can literally taste what your ancestors ate. Though, I personally am inclined to want to find old dessert recipes more than that recipe for homemade pickled herring, it is still fun to see what they ate and how much work was put into preparing their food.
Finally, for me, and for a lot of other researchers, one of the main hopes is that the work we are doing can be passed on to future generations. We dream that 200 years from now, a fifth great-grandchild will find our names in the tree and take a few moments to remember us and to think about how our lives were way back in 2016.
Are you interested in knowing more about your family but don’t know where to start? Have you started climbing your family tree but need help? Do you need assistance figuring out how to share what you you’ve learned about your genealogy? Family Past Expert is here to help!
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Christensen, Emily. “4 reasons you should study your family history.” FamilyShare. Web. 16 February 2016. http://familyshare.com/family/4-reasons-you-should-study-your-family-history
Farnham, Alan. “Who’s Your Daddy? Genealogy Becomes $1.6b Hobby.” ABC News. 24 October 2014. Web. 16 February 2016. http://abcnews.go.com/Business/genealogy-hot-hobby-worth-16b-mormons/story?id=17544242
“Genealogy is the Second Most Popular Hobby in the U.S.” Familytree.com. Web. 16 February 2016. http://www.familytree.com/blog/genealogy-is-the-second-most-popular-hobby-in-the-u-s/
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Nigro, Carmen. “20 Reasons Why You Should Write Your Family History.” New York Public Library. 9 February 2015. Web. 16 February 2016. http://www.nypl.org/blog/2015/02/09/reasons-to-write-your-family-history
Rodriquez, Gregory. “How Genealogy Became Almost as Popular as Porn.” Time. 30 May 2014. Web. 16 February 2016. http://time.com/133811/how-genealogy-became-almost-as-popular-as-porn/
Rodriguez, Gregory. “Roots of genealogy craze: Column, How an elitist pursuit became a mainstream American obsession.” USA Today. 12 May 2014. Web. 16 February 2016. http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2014/05/12/genealogy-americans-technology-roots-porn-websites-column/9019409/
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