Thursday, August 27, 2009

King or a pauper - Telling the stories

I've always found it a surprising matter that my parents each have such wildly contrasting ancestral lines. Not in regard to ethnicity or social background, but in the exploits of ancestors, be they famous, known or partially forgotten. This I believe is due to how little I know of my mother's family, and how I have a long way to go in being able to release the many stories that are still entombed within the genealogical ether.

On mum's side of the family I've so far found interest in the stories of a famous land owner and state politician, a pair of First Fleet convicts, one among the first three European females born in New Zealand, the founder of a township in the North West of New South Wales and a child who had allegedly been the first European male born or christened in New South Wales. They make for interesting starting points, but without real in-depth research they aren't worth a hill of beans in terms of value as research, self enlightenment and or shared entertainment.

There are others too, but the list of characters I've any in-depth knowledge of shortens rather quickly, and perhaps that is because I am yet to truly rip in, grapple and tear open such family lines with the focus and zeal required. Granted, it's only a matter of time, but for now I have several key brick walls that far too easily borrow my concentration and time.

For my dad's side of the family, I find people who stand out in a few particular categories: Sports stars, artists and political activists. The list is astonishingly long. I count professional boxers, including world and Australian title holders, dozens of professional Australian rules and Rugby League football players and many of the pioneers of the black civil rights movement in Australia. All are fascinating individuals, and are found in numerous academic volumes and archives.

However, despite this wealth of historical significance, I feel that the most amazing stories that can come from family history are those that are far more personal tales. Those that speak of experiences both hard and heartfelt, where 'no-names' have struggled to make their way in the world and to provide a better life for their loved ones. Indeed, I would suggest that in the age of the internet, genealogy has matured somewhat, to the point where the true family historians/storytellers are common and the name collecting know-nothings are a dying breed. Or at least, I imagine that is probably and hopefully the case.

Many researchers might start out with a curious flair, searching for those names whose individual brilliance or notoriety might be linked to us in some way, but if genealogy takes hold as a passion then short focused interest in the extraordinary often gives way to long term fascination in the ordinary. What was life like in 1845? What illnesses did people have in the late 1700's? What entertained people in 1908? All of these and a million more questions are interwoven into our rich tapestries of family history, and they teach, enrich and elucidate our stories, bringing them to life in sometimes the most amazing of ways.

Finding a link to a European Monarch, a Major League baseball player or famous author should capture our attention, and perhaps offer us a small slice of pride in our ancestry, but I argue that we should take no less pride, or enjoyment from the challenge of fleshing out the lives of those who were Ag labourers, file makers and servants to the landed gentry. After all, it's the supposedly boring and mundane folk who make the high achievers shine in the first place!

Is the story of a famous explorer risking his life for adventure really any better than that of a farmer who lived his entire life in one location? One might readily say yes, but that answer would more than likely be based on the anticipated ease with which the researcher might be able to build atmosphere and depth to the tale, and not on the reality where any subject can be made interesting, provided that the writer has the skill and passion necessary to the task.

No individual in a given family tree is of any greater value as a potential noteworthy story than the next. Each person is a character subject to the same pen, and any family historian worth their salt should be given to helping their ancestors from all walks of life have their stories fleshed out, valued and held to our hearts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello John,

Yours is a great post. You echo many of my sentiments regarding ancestry.

It's the stories of all our Ancestors, wealthy and poor, that put meat on the bones of our character.

I'm not going to preach to the choir here, LOL

I'm just going to say 'hello' and visit often!

"Guided by the Ancestors"