Researching Your Family History

A healthy hobby

Researching Your Family History

Researchers have discovered that we get potential health benefits from researching family history. Discover how to unlock the secrets of your family ancestry.

Many of us have an urge to learn about the lives of our ancestors. Now, research is suggesting that delving into our family histories may have health benefits.

Unlocking our past

The claim is often made that family history is everyone’s favourite hobby, after gardening. Although there is no solid research to prove this, a survey by Ancestry.ca discovered the following about Canadians over the age of 18:

  • 91 percent feel that knowing their family history is important.
  • 44 percent have researched their family history.
  • 44 percent don’t know when their family first arrived in Canada.
  • 42 percent wish they knew more about their family history.
  • 37 percent don’t know where either their grandparents or great-grandparents were born.
  • 34 percent don’t know either of their grandmothers’ maiden names.

Thankfully, today there are many options available for those who wish to trace their families’ histories. We can craft family trees with paper and pencil on free templates available on the Internet, download free family tree software, or build a tree online using Internet-based software.

Emotional health

Research by Calgary-based genealogists reveals potential health benefits associated with the hobby of researching one’s family history. Piecing together family history is a problem-solving pastime that engenders a sense of accomplishment and independence. Learning about our family’s history often reveals the adversity that our ancestors overcame, and this may lead to a sense of familial self-worth and belonging.

Above all, the new knowledge garnered about our family may help to foster our feelings of gratitude for the life we have. From this peaceful place we may feel grounded and look positively at our present life, our future, and the prospects of our loved ones.

Given the capacity of family history to help people feel rooted, some counsellors discuss family history as a springboard to assist clients with their emotional well-being. In some situations, psychotherapists advise their patients to create family trees as a step in learning about their backgrounds and working through conflicts.

According to another recent study, thinking about one’s genetic origin may even boost intellectual performance. Study participants were divided into two groups: one group was asked to think about their ancestors, and the other was not. All the participants then completed a range of tasks that measured intelligence. Those who had been contemplating their family history fared better.

Physical health

Knowledge of family history may also make us healthier, as knowing the cause of death of our ancestors may help to forecast and diagnose some common disorders. For instance, a risk factor for several types of cancer is having a family history of that particular disease.

When family medical history indicates several deaths from a certain type of cancer, depending on the type of cancer in question, there may be a screening test available to identify whether a family member has a genetic disposition toward that disease. This is a big decision with many points to consider and discuss with your health care practitioner.

Dealing with surprises: my personal story

Investigating the past turns up surprises. When uncovering my family narrative, I was shocked to discover that my great-great-grandfather expired in jail. My grandmother had told me that he died aboard a ship while emigrating from England in 1870. Learning of our family fib, I concluded that my foreparent must have been a black sheep whom my family was trying to paint white.

By rummaging through 19th century newspapers and online resources, I began to appreciate the adversity many faced in the times of my great-great-grandfather. I learned about the poverty that forced his fellow townsfolks to emigrate. And when he was trying to build a new life in Canada my jailbird ancestor faced a deep economic depression in the last quarter of the 19th century. The jail where he died in 1894 was the de facto poorhouse for people living in his area.

I concluded that this hoosegow offered my great-great-grandfather the best living conditions he had in his 80 years. He wasn’t a black sheep after all; it was the times that were bleak. Knowledge of my ancestor’s life and the times he lived in helped me to alleviate the instant shame I felt upon learning that a family member had died in jail.

Taking the plunge: discover your own story

Many baby boomers and seniors seem to have a biological urge to learn about the lives of their ancestors. They have the time to search. They have the funds to do heritage tourism in their ancestors’ birthplaces. For tips on researching your own family history, see the sidebar.

When I investigated my family history I realized how fortunate I am. I haven’t marched off to war as did my great-great-uncles, great-uncles, grandfather, uncles, and father. When I was their age I was in school, and after graduating I visited the battlefields of the world wars—learning, not fighting. Discovering my family history has made me grateful for my ancestors’ courage and compassionate toward their shortcomings. What will it do for you? 


Genealogy or family history?

 

The fact that my great-great-grandfather died in 1894 is genealogy, as genealogy pertains to data about birth, marriage, and death. Genealogical data is concrete, but not airtight because it’s possible for records to be falsified. Genealogical information often raises questions. Why did our ancestors emigrate? What was their experience of emigrating? How did they survive after emigration?

Answers to these questions are in the domain of family history. Family historians find their answers in books about social and economic history, photographs, letters, military service records, newspapers, diaries, ships’ passenger lists, and other resources. The records they uncover often reveal an interesting but incomplete story. The facts gathered are combined with conjecture, imagination, and feeling—to create plausible family stories.


Tips for success

 

There are many ways to do family history. Here’s a list of tips to help you get started and to develop your personal list of secrets to success.

  • Connect with others who are interested in family history and tap into their expertise.
  • Attend meetings of genealogy and family history associations and be curious about how others conduct genealogy and family history research. Check your community directory and the Internet to find groups.
  • Treat your research as a problem-solving exercise, moving from the known to the unknown. Consider starting with oral or written family stories.
  • Question everything you are told or read. Many stories and records are incorrectly transcribed, falsified, or just plain wrong. This can even apply to what you’ll find in well-known databases. So always look for more than one source of information to support your conclusions.
  • Keep a detailed account of your research activities and the records you use.
  • Check out free resources such as websites, software, newsletters, videos, blogs, free databases, historical documents, and books. Include community museums and archives in your research.
  • Visit the Library and Archives Canada website for tips on how to begin genealogical research. collectionscanada.gc.ca/genealogy

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