To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven in to the life of our ancestors by the records of history?
--Cicero, Roman Orator
Unlike many of their cultures of origin, Americans do not normally
have as strong ties to their heritage; they perceive their biographies
to be generally independent of history and not based upon the deeds of
their ancestors. As a result, Americans' interest in genealogical matters
is often assumed to be less than in most other cultures.
The extent of this roots ignorance is evident among Trinity University undergraduates. Surveys of those enrolled
in the university's Sociology of Marriage and Family Processes class between 1995 and 2004 reveal:
While this absence of interest may be the consequence of individualism
and an abundance of free will, it may also be the result of more mundane
facts of life. This culture of immigrants sees many of its members leaving
behind in their homelands the records and memories of their ancestors.
The American melting pot required the shedding of their pasts as well as
their names. Further, high rates of geographical (and social) mobility
further estranged any connections between generations alive and dead. The
further West one goes, the fewer the cemeteries containing high proportions
of lots with four or more generations of family members.
- only one-quarter described their family history as personally being
- only 45% could name one family story at least a century-old (several tried
sneaking in a WW II tale), and yet nearly three-quarters agreed with the
statement "when compared to most others, I think I am more appreciative
of my ancestors' stories"
- 60% of these oldest family stories occurred since 1800
- approximately one-third unable to provide the first name of any of their great-grandparents
and three-quarters knowing the names of two or less.
To counter rampant individualism, an ideology emerging from religious
and communitarian circles stresses the need for generations to remember
their roots and to consider their obligations to those yet to be born.
(In the Trinity surveys we find that the more great-grandparents students
can name the more likely they are to agree with the statement "All
in all, it is more important to sacrifice for future generations than to
live life for its enjoyment.") This thesis is slowly seeping into
public discourse, entering either directly from theological, philosophical,
and anthropological sources or, from them, through the popular culture. For instance, in Jeremy Rifkin's Time Wars we learn how the "Iroquois
see themselves as servants of the past and stewards of the future. ...When
the Iroquois make decisions they do so always with the thought of honoring
their ancestors and nurturing their unborn progeny. ...An Iroquois chief
explains the process:
We are looking ahead, as is one of the first mandates given to us
chiefs, to make sure [that] every decision we make relates to the welfare
and well-being of the seventh generation to come, and that is the basis
by which we make decisions in council (1987:65).
One of the best ways to begin investigating one's family's genealogy is to interview its oldest members.
For question ideas, check out About.com's "Fifty Questions for Family History Interviews"
in addition to its
Genealogy 101 site. (By the way, what is a third
cousin twice removed?) Best genealogical software for the price (it's
- Cyndi's List of
Genealogy Sites on the Web --"Over 254,200 links, categorized and cross-referenced in over
Genealogy Home Page--massive archive of resource sites
- RootsWeb: "The oldest and largest
FREE genealogy site"
- The Church of Latter-Day Saints'
- ProGenealogists Family History Research
Group--from a consortium of professional genealogists who specialize in genealogy and family history research
- Did your family enter the New World through Ellis Island? If so, check the Ellis Island database, which covers arrivals
from 1892 through 1924, the peak immigration years. What to see the
geographical distribution of your surname? Try out Hamrick
Software's U.S. Surname Distribution.
- HeritageQuest Online
- Genealogy Today--"Genealogy help for newbies, family researchers, genealogists and professionals."
- FamilyTree Magazine "Discover, Preserve, and Celebrate Your Family History"
- Social Security
- CEMSEARCH--an online cemetery inscription search engine, part of
series (shown early 1997)
- GeneaNet--List of surnames dating
- Speaking of surnames, do you know the origin and meaning of yours? Take a
look at Surnames: What's In a
- National Genealogical Society
- Home Page
- United States Vital
Bureau's Name Search
- Collections of old family
- Journal of Online Genealogy
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