Engage History With Genealogy

by Dianne McLean

Do you have trouble engaging your children in history? With my kids, no matter how cute I tried to make history, no matter how many visuals, timelines, videos, and pictures that I incorporated, they still were not interested as much as I wanted them to be. And personally, history was never my favorite subject in school. However, I am an inquisitive person and I have taught my children to also be inquisitive.

Therefore, when I got into genealogy things changed for me. All of a sudden I wanted to know the reasons why people would pick up and move from one place to another. I wanted to know how they lived, what their beliefs were, who influenced them, who their neighbors were, and suprisingly as I inquired about these things I found myself anxiously engaged in wars and sociology and culture and HISTORY!!

So for our family, our best history resource has been getting involved in genealogy. I shared the excitement of the things that I found with my children. Placing ancestors into the times of historical events really helped to engage them, just as I had hoped.

Some examples:
When studying the first settlers all the way up to the events leading up to the Revolution, we already knew that we had ancestors who were among the very first to arrive - Pilgrims as they were referred to in history books. So we started reading about some of them. Their stories were remarkable - we have journals from that era which told of the journey from England, the hardships after settling, the political issues, etc. You can also find great sources of history in the county archives.

By the time we got to the period of the Salem witch trials, we were reading journals about a group of ancestors who were Loyalists. That meant they did not want to rebel against the King. The Revolution started long before 1776, and as rebels were gearing up there were many uprisings which never hit the history books. But they are in family journals and county archives. Those who refused to rebel or take part in the politics, those were the ones whose wives and daughters were accused of being witches. They were usually influential people who had large plots of land and money to support the cause. So the rebels really pushed hard to get them behind that revolution. We have family that fled to Annapolis, Nova Scotia - along with thousands of others - who absolutely were fleeing for their lives and to save their wives and daughters from being burned at the stake. The witch trials were not a religious movement, this was a political movement. And those who refused to participate were called Loyalists. About 100 years after the Revolutionary War, they began to come back to Maine and Connecticut to reclaim the land they had left behind. NONE of this is in the history books - at least not in this context!! But it sparked such interest in my kids in understanding truth and justice - and two sides to a story. They understand that sometimes desperation for making things right leads people to do wicked things. And sometimes people are afraid to leave the comfort of tyranny and are not willing to fight for freedom. Do we still see this today?

Moving forward to after the Revolutionary War, we were looking at relatives who migrated westward. Why did they do this? Because that is how they got paid for serving in the war - the new government didn't have any money, so they gave out land grants in Kentucky, then Ohio, then Indiana and so forth. We started with Kentucky, which of course everyone knows that Daniel Boone made his way through the hostile Indian territory and blazed a trail through the Cumberland Gap. But most people don't know that after the war, the British were pretty ticked off and they wanted to regain what they had lost. So they came around the gulf, through Louisiana, and convinced the Indians that the white rebels were not peaceful and wanted to kill the wives of the Indians. They provoked the Indians from behind and the settlers (including Daniel Boone) had no idea why the Indians were so hostile. Documents upon documents were located in family journals, detailing the horrific slaughters. None of this is in the history books. In addition, Benjamin Franklin hired privateers to head off the British in the gulf and sink their ships, which was highly illegal according to our newly formed Constitution. The privateers got to keep the booty from the ships, but if they told anyone where their orders came from, the tables turned on them quickly to make them out to be criminals (which they were, sort of).

Pensions were also a result of the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812. Of course we didn't have social security numbers or drivers licenses back then, so for the soldier to prove that they served and who they served under, they had to write out testimonials which explained all of this data. In addition to the soldier's own testimony, he would have to obtain testimonies of people who served with him, neighbors who knew of his service, and anyone else who could help prove his identity. If the soldier was deceased, the widow would need to go through all of this, including verifying that she and the soldier were married prior to his commencement of service, again obtaining testimonies of people who could verify the facts.

During the written testimonies, you often get glimpses of their lives. They tell stories about how they got to where they are. In one story, a soldier tells of how his father was serving under General Washington. The young boy, about 13 years old, went to deliver some letters from the family and some money to his father. The father convinced the boy to serve in his place, so he could go home to his wife. General Washington granted this request, but he was not about to let the young boy out on the line. The Major who gave the orders was known to have stated: "I would not give two of this boy for one of his father." The boy served as a personal cook for General Washington for his entire term of three years. This story is full of vivid details about the boy's experiences. But it conveys a message of compassion, and it's only found in the military file after the boy became a man and filed for his pension. The father never received a pension, but did try to claim one. I have dozens and dozens of stories like this from all of the wars, and it fascinated my kids to want to know more. The Civil War has many more stories which are not found in history books but only in reading the journals of ancestors and the military records of individuals who were applying for their pension.

While it's important to remember the hard times with the pioneers who settled the west via wagon trains and handcarts, there were many MORE treks that were successful, bringing tens of thousands of happy people - without horrible incidents - to settle what was known as "the wild west". We have found stories about ancestors who were involved with things we would rather not discuss. And we have found stories about ancestors who were heroes in their communities - yet never recognized in a single history book.

Moving over to World History - we have records which date back to 76 AD - which tells stories about ancestors who were again, not found in history books. We wanted to know why our Scottish ancestors left their homeland and went to Nova Scotia. The books didn't really give us all the pieces of the puzzle for the Highland Clearances - so we started reading newspaper articles from the 1700's and early 1800's, we read family journals, county histories, and discovered so much information. We were able to tie together things that were happening in Europe to things that were happening in America at the same time. Our family took an interest in studying about all of the kings and queens since the death of Christ, all of the wars and contentions, and the things that are barely touched on in history books. We have studied every country on every continent.

So as you can see, teaching history through genealogy is a great way to give your children an interactive, meaningful, memorable, and rather comprehensive history lesson. Have you tried this approach? Comment below and let us know your thoughts!

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