Saturday, June 16, 2012

Breathing Life Into Your Ancestors

Between Genealogical Research and Historical Research.

Last week I talked about ‘Why Just Genealogical Research Is Not Enough’ and the necessity of doing historical research. But while historical research gives us a nice framework to place the facts of an ancestor’s life, it still doesn’t tell us about the thoughts and views of this ancestor. And as Rorey Cathcart commented on the aforementioned post:

“One of my biggest frustrations with genealogy is that though I know 'when' someone was I rarely know 'who' someone was. Even some of my very well documented ancestors leave me dissatisfied. I search and search for that next piece of information that might reveal some insight beyond the facts. Letters are a godsend but rare to non-existent.”

However much historical research might add to our understanding of our ancestors and their choices, it’s still only facts. There is no ‘why’ in historical research – at least not on any personal level. But there is something we can do to bridge that gap. Just because our ancestors might not have left letters and diaries, this does not mean someone just like our ancestors didn’t. Better yet, many of these diaries and letters have made it into archives, or even published. With a little bit of searching – on topic, theme, or time period – one can find a wealth of information written first hand by contemporaries of our ancestors.

Diaries and letters of people living in the same region during the same time, of the same social and economical standing, can give us insights in how they thought. And because they grew up like our ancestors did and encountered the same things, it’s highly likely that their general thoughts on a subject resemble that of our own ancestors.

To give an example, take my great-grandmother Adriana Versloot. She lived in the Dutch East-Indies in the 1930s, where her husband was stationed as a marine. When the Japanese invaded the Dutch East-Indies in 1942, she was sent to a prison camp, where she eventually succumbed to the lack of food in 1945. While there’s no written record of her own hand – aside from some recipes – there’s a diary at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies written by a woman in the same camp during the period 1944-1945. The information in there will bring me as close to my great-grandmother as I’ll ever be – no historical book about the prison camps will truly show me the horrors, and the little moments of joy the women there found during that time.

So genealogical research gives us the facts of an ancestor’s life (and a little more if we’re lucky) and historical research gives us the framework in which to place these facts. And the window dressing – the ‘why’ and all those little day-to-day trivial things that never make it to the history books? Well, those can be found in the diaries and letters our ancestor’s contemporaries left behind.


  1. It's a source often overlooked, and when I answered Rorey and mentioned diaries and letters of other people, I figured I might as well make it into a post.