I hated history in high school, a fact that seems absurd to me today since now I’m surrounded by it. But back then, history was just a bunch of names and dates and events that had no impact on me whatsoever. Or so I thought.
Age does funny things to you. Gravity aside, it’s also helped me realize just how much I was personally affected by those events we studied in school. For example, I was always told that my great-grandfather left Austria-Hungary to avoid conscription. What I didn’t know until I started checking dates was that World War I was the bigger trigger.
I thought about this again on Friday as I was watching Who Do You Think You Are? I was quick to make the Salem, Massachusetts link – the witch trials were one of the more interesting things I recalled from high school history, although I may have learned more about them from literature and reruns of Bewitched. Still, if I found Salem in my family tree, you bet I’d start searching for links to witches. The Gold Rush, however, threw me off. Although I currently live in the West, I still don’t immediately connect 19th-century trips to California to searching for gold.
Genealogists have a suggestion for people like me who don’t recall all of those names, dates, and events from history. Put everything on a timeline. Start with an ancestor and create notations above the dateline of that person’s life. Include places of residence, dates children were born, education, occupation, and everything else you know. Note historical events below the line. If your history has become a little rusty over the years, you can find fantastic history sources at sites including The History Channel (http://www.history.com/), Digital History (http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/), and even Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com/). Also read local historic newspapers to add events that may have occurred near your ancestor’s home.
With a timeline in front of me, I would have quickly guessed that Sarah Jessica’s great-great-great-great-grandfather was off to California to strike it rich, and then I could have searched for documents that proved this true. In my own family, I could see which of my relatives might have fought in the Civil War so I can know who might have related pension records. I could determine if there was a political reason for my Italian ancestors to come to America and if the social climate in Italy had changed 15 years or so later when a few of them returned home. And the list goes on and on.