The current availability of online databases and the mass photocopying of searchable historical documents have led to a renewed interest in genealogy, and it is now much easier to fill in the basic outline of our family trees.
Many are quickly fascinated by the process of slowly leapfrogging back one generation at a time to learn the names of the ancestors who are responsible for our existences today, and the continuity with the past that we establish seems to give our lives an additional layer of meaning. In a sense, our genealogical efforts write us into a history that we had probably not much appreciated.
The initial fascination with the past soon grows muted, however, as the sheer number of our ancestors becomes apparent. The figure increases exponentially with each leap of a generation back in the tree, and while four grandparents or eight great-grandparents are relatively easy to get our minds around, by the time we arrive at a point only ten generations back, there are more than 2,000 individuals to consider.
Each is part of our unique genetic heritage. Each piques our curiosity. Each also puts us in a difficult situation. Our dilemma is that, on one hand, we realize that with enough time, effort, and some luck, it is usually possible for us to know these ancestors to some degree; on the other, we must also admit that because of the numbers involved this is not a realistic endeavor.
The monumental task of resurrecting the thousands of individuals who came directly before us begs us to concentrate on a deeper investigation of specific individuals or specific lines. Here, the social and psychological importance of the surname cannot be denied since it is often the only inherited detail of the past that is with us in our daily lives. We are subconsciously reminded of our paternal ancestors each time we say, hear, or sign our surname, and this perhaps explains why this line of descent intrigues us most.
The dead of course cannot be interviewed, and our second task begins with the sifting of any available historical information the line may have left. As much as we would like to learn about our ancestors’ aspirations in life, their perspectives on social issues, and their interpersonal relationships, we must admit that almost all of this type of personal information lies beyond our reach. The majority simply lived lives that did not leave particularly strong marks on history.
Without written records such as diaries and correspondence, most have left the minimum – dates and places in time recorded by someone else. This “cold” data, often limited to a birth, a marriage, perhaps a few census entries, and a death, constitutes a basic framework around which we can begin to consider an individual, but it does not in itself give us the type of information that allows us to appreciate them in much detail.
Nonetheless, all cold data exists against an historical backdrop of general information that can be explored deeply, and carefully considering what is known of an individual inside an informed reading of history can shed a significant amount of light on his/her life.
Carefully juxtaposing the two types of information allows us to draw inferences and consider them in a much more humanistic light. If we cannot know our ancestors’ most intimate details, we can still learn of their prospects at birth, the social conditions that constrained them, and the occupations they chose, for example.