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HISTORY 101: Learning History Through Your Own Family Tree
by C.B. Ball
History. . .

How much broader a topic could there possibly be? Even if you break it down to smaller components, you would still have endless amounts of information to cover. So, to say you are studying “history” is a vague statement at best. In public schools, what subjects are taught when, and which specific details are presented, are decided for us. Someone else chooses what in our past is worthy of studying and what is not. As homeschoolers, however, the choice is ours. The key, then, is to narrow the choices down to bite-sized topics. One of my biggest complaints about public education is the tendency to skim through history in order to fit it into a neatly-wrapped, school-year package. One year is devoted to California History, another is devoted to World History, another to American History, and so forth, often omitting important facts. Yet each general subject can, in reality, be broken down into much smaller bits allowing for easier digestion of the material presented and more time to savor every morsel.

What I mean by that is this: When you ask a child what his/her favorite school subject is, how often do you hear “history” as the answer? Not often at all. That is because the study of history has been dumbed-down into nothing more than names and dates to memorize. This approach is simply boring and a bored pupil cannot effectively internalize or learn anything. However, once you have pulled history out of its “time clock,” it becomes evident that we have our entire future lives to learn about the past. We can take all the time we need to learn it. History isn’t going anywhere, so why hurry? If you rush and try to stuff all of American History into one year, the student may be able to pass a test and regurgitate the answers, but what he learned will soon be forgotten. It is better to meander slowly through time, personalize it, and what is learned will find a permanent place in the mind and in the heart.

So, where do we begin? I mentioned that history should be personalized. How more personal can you get than one’s own family history? October was National Family History Month, so there is no more perfect time to begin uncovering your family history than now. Genealogists worldwide have already discovered the gratifying and even addictive nature of studying one’s own history. You may think at first that learning about your family is not valuable in an educational sort of way, but you would be wrong.

Each individual can trace his/her lineage back to some important part of history. My own ancestry encompasses several pivotal periods in American history including the trek West by pioneers during the mid-1800’s, the resettlement of Native American Indian tribes on reservations, Nineteenth-century emigration to the U.S. from England, as well as the early colonies and the American Revolutionary War. History is far more exciting when personal connections to it are made. Studying about the American Indian wars, for example, was of little interest to me until I discovered my relation to Andrew Jackson, a past president of the United States and one of the most adamant fighters against the Indians. Ironically, his cousin, Anita, married a Choctaw Indian, my great great-grandfather Tubby Winborn. I imagine Andrew must have been indignant about having an Indian in the family!

Additionally, the Revolutionary War seemed distant to me until I learned that I am a direct descendant of one of the war’s great generals. And with a little bit of sleuthing, anyone can make similar discoveries in their own family line.

Start with a blank pedigree chart. One can be downloaded on-line at one of the websites mentioned at the close of this article. A pedigree chart is simply a way to organize you and your progenitors on the family tree. It includes spaces for names and dates and places of births, marriages, and deaths. Place your name on the first space. Fill in as much information as possible about your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Use maiden names for your female ancestors. Circle all the missing pieces of information with a highlighter or red pencil.

Now the sleuthing begins. Try to uncover the missing information by talking to other family members: Grandparents, uncles, cousins, etc. Look at the dates and places your ancestors were born. Since most pedigree charts allow for five generations, completing one should take you back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Did any of your relatives fight during World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, or the Gulf War? Who lived through the Great Depression? Did anyone grow up in one part of the country and end up in another or immigrate here from another country? At this point, history takes a turn. Reach beyond the dates written on your paper and start collecting details. Focus on one individual or family at a time. Collect pictures, record stories, gather heirlooms.

My maternal grandfather served in the Navy during World War II. Though he never saw battle, he had many interesting experiences during his service in the South Pacific. He recently sent me a cassette containing thirty minutes of stories from that time of his life. My favorite story is one commonly associated with that part of American History. On the day the war ended, he was on leave at a bar with some friends. When the announcement came over the radio, my grandfather grabbed a girl and kissed her. That girl ended up becoming my grandmother. They were married for fifty-three years until she passed away two years ago.

Another part of family history that I enjoy doing is collecting family heirlooms. I have been dubbed “the family historian” and as such, have been given many treasures for safekeeping including a hand-sewn yard stick holder made by my great-grandmother; silver shoe buckles and a broach once worn by another of my great-grandmothers; my grandfather’s pocket watch and cap which he wore when he drove the trolley in the early days of Los Angeles; a child’s rocking chair that belonged to my grandmother when she was young; and the book she purchased with the money her father gave her on the day he died. These items are all very special to me and each one has a story that gives depth and color to the people who once owned them and to the time in which they lived.

What stories can you uncover? Here are some suggestions to help you get started on your own family history:

  1. Interview an older relative. Encourage him/her to relate stories from childhood and youth. Record the interview on cassette or write the experiences in a journal.
  2. Collect photographs and add them to your family history journal. If the photos belong to someone else, ask permission to scan them onto a disk or color copy them at a print shop. Be sure to write down who is in each photo and approximately what year it was taken.
  3. Complete your family tree. Use a pedigree chart to record information about your ancestors.
  4. Connect your family to important periods in history and then spend some time researching that era in the library or on the Internet.
  5. Write a short story or essay about a specific event of that time period using your relative as the main character. Include details specific to the place and time the story takes place.
  6. Visit a family history center and learn how to further your research.
  7. Join your local genealogy club.
FAMILY HISTORY WEBSITES: Download pedigree charts and other documents for free. Also read articles from the print magazine. A popular resource for doing research. Subscription required for prolonged use. A search engine for millions of names worldwide. Sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A website containing over 18,000 thousand family history related links! A how-to site for beginners and children. Suggestions on how to make genealogy a family project.


Bringing Your Family History to Life Through Social History, by Katherine Scott Sturdevant

Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs, by Maureen A. Taylor

Unpuzzling Your Past, 4th Edition, by Emily Anne Croom

First Steps in Genealogy, by Desmond Walls Allen

My Family Tree: A Bird’s Eye View, by Nina Laden.

My Family Tree Workbook: Genealogy for Beginners, by Rosemary A. Chorzempa

The Family Tree Detective Cracking the Case of Your Family’s Story, by Ann Douglas

--- CBB