History dull? Depends on how you look at it.

If one’s knowledge of history is from dull textbooks, even duller teachers, and their belief that world history ended at the time of Reconstruction (1870s) then I can see where a person could find history boring.   But Edmund Burke said, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

Quite some time ago I became interested in genealogy and was able to fill in some of the blanks that a maternal great-uncle and paternal great-aunt hadn’t been able to find.  If one traces the family history this can be used to not only find out where you come from and your medical history but how your family was affected by historical events during their lifetimes.  Helene Hanff, author of 84, Charing Cross Road wrote that “I never can get interested in things that didn’t happen to people who never lived.”  If you are connected to someone in a certain time frame or at an event, it can help bring the events alive.

Many books and websites suggest that when starting your family tree you start with talking to parents, grandparents, and other immediate relatives. Request birth, marriage, and death (if applicable) dates, ask if someone had been in the military, what’s known about immigrant relatives, and discover if any family stories may hold clues.  The PBS programs “Finding Your Roots” and “History Detectives” can be sources of ideas, too.  Once you have determined names and dates then you can contact the states to obtain any applicable documentation.  You might find information about a person at the county courthouse where they lived.  Copies of my father’s and grandfathers’ military discharge papers were available at their respective courthouses and the National Archives also have resources to find records.    The courthouse in my hometown also had my great-great grandfather’s naturalization papers from 1889.  Online resources include Geni which allows you see your history in a family tree format, ancestry.com which seems to require a membership, and the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center.  The last one mentioned was extremely helpful when I was there.  For example, they had ships’ passenger lists  which the National Archives didn’t have so I was able to find the S.S. California in 1884 when the Tews family immigrated.

If you listen to family stories, read diaries, etc. you can find out a lot about their experiences regarding various events, either personal or those on a larger scale.  My paternal grandfather Ralph W. Tews, for example, told and wrote about some of his experiences in Europe during World War II.  He was in cavalry reconnaissance which meant from the time he landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day until his group helped liberate Camp Buchenwald he was constantly under attack and, unless fixing a vehicle, usually ahead of just about everyone.  Once they returned to the US in October 1945 his best war buddy, Cecil A. Sutton of Virginia, unfortunately dropped off the face of the earth.  Grandpa always wondered what happened to Cees but we could never find him.

“Death of the Family Archivist” by Brad Lighthauser is one of my favorite poems and involves family history.  In it the speaker describes the relative, Ethel, as having known the family history like the back of her hand but when she died, “history’s unlikeliest general” took her “troops…on a night march into the world’s least understood terrain.”  With the knowledge she alone knew then the family was no longer certain of their history.  There is a lot of my family’s history which is lost because the information was not passed on by one means or another.  With the puzzle pieces of family history that I do have then I’ve definitely found ways to connect to periods of dull, dry history.  I wonder what sort of interesting connections you have in your history….

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