What is Family History?

In my new book, 21st Century Family History, I invite you to reorient the course of family history. Then, I start off my describing what family history is. Here is another peak at the first chapter in the first section of "Reorienting the Course of Family History" entitled "What is Family History?"
Before we can understand a definition that says, family history is ______ ; let’s take a few moments to consider some questions that seem off topic, but work our way back to a definition.

In the United Kingdom, Australia, Denmark, Czech Republic, and the United States of America, a reality TV show called Who Do You Think You Are? is relatively popular. The show follows a celebrity each week as they research their family tree. Have you seen it? If you have, stop and think about why this show is so compelling. (If you haven’t seen it, then some past episodes are available on YouTube)

Does it have drama? Yep.
Does it have twists and turns? Yes.
Does it have stories that anyone can relate to? Yes.

In one episode of the American version of the show, country singer Reba McEntire traces her ancestry in America and England. She learned some very painful truths, including one about a relative who was a slave owner. That truth bothered her but she faced it with grace.

Then she learned she had a relative involved in a lesser known side of the servitude issue in America. Reba was emotionally fired up as much as her trademark fire-red hair. She was incensed that the father of a nine-year old boy would sell his son as an indentured servant to be sent to America. Reba felt the father had basically abandoned his son. Through the research of a genealogist, she learned the more plausible truth about why the child’s father would send the young boy on a dangerous ship voyage alone, to work as essentially a slave. Her heart completely broke. The emotions of anger melted into love and gratitude. You’ll have to watch the episode to know why.

In Reba’s show and in every other episode, Who Do You Think You Are? follows an individual through the discovery of very real, very personal stories using old photos and documents, and knowledge from various experts around the world. As the featured star encounters each discovery, they experience a wide range of emotion and see a variety of weird coincidences. When their discovery wraps up at the end of the episode, they’ve learned a lot and have something to share with their children and grandchildren… and often a desire to learn more. Sometimes, they have a desire to change or continue on the legacy they learned. Not every story is happy, but every story is real.

When examining other media, a few key elements are necessary to please an audience. A successful television show, movie, or book must have a champion, emotion, and a hook. We need someone to cheer for, a story that is engaging, and enough entertainment to keep us tuned in or turning the page. If one of these components is missing, few people will be interested.

Family history is no different. When a person seeks after their legacy (whether to build upon or break free from), they want to know the champions along with the other cast of characters. Some characters we will love. Some we will learn from. And some we might be glad we didn’t live, with because we might not have kept our wits about us in their presence. At the same time, the beloved grandpa may have a dark side. The unpopular uncle may have taught dogs to do tricks. And the ostracized family member might have influenced the world for good, despite the black sheep status.

Real people are not one dimensional, but have multiple facets to their lives. All of these family members taken in context with  their struggles, triumphs, defeats, heart aches, and strength provide a wide range of emotions. You will scream. You will sorrow. You will celebrate. You can understand, or you may never comprehend. Regardless, you will find enough emotion, when you do your research well, to keep you hooked. The quest to know. The quest to learn. The quest to share. The quest to forgive. The quest to honor. Your hook, based upon the emotion caused by the champions (or scoundrels) are the core of family history done well.
What is Family History by Devon Lee
What is Family History by Devon Lee

Did you ever stop to realize that Family History has the word 'story' in it? Family history is the stories of families. When we forget that, the work and the sharing of the work becomes boring… just like an unsuccessful TV show.

Let’s emphasize this another way. Family History is not pedigree charts and group sheets. When someone says, “I'm going to do my family history or genealogy,” they usually mean building these charts. Additionally, most every beginning family history class will show you a pedigree chart and tell you to start filling it out. If you wanted to earn the Boy Scouts of America Genealogy Merit Badge, six of the ten required assignments deal with charts and resources and four deal with stories.

Charts are not family history. They are tools that assist in the big picture of the family history pie. Genealogy and Family History are different in focus. Though genealogy is important, its focus is establishing names, dates, and relationships. When you understand Family History, you’ll understand that facts are a support to the story but not the entirety of it.

Family history is not this:
Lewis S Brown
1918 - 1978

or this:
Lewis Sherman Brown
b. 18 Sep 1918 in Columbus, Franklin, Ohio
d. 18 Sep 1978 in Columbus, Franklin, Ohio

or even this:

Family History is not just charts
Lewis Brown's Group Sheet information by Devon Lee

Looking over these facts, do you know much about Lewis Brown?

If you focus on completing a pedigree chart, you’ll likely stop there. Sure you might need a few documents to prove the dates. But other than that, your purpose is to complete a chart. Once the chart is complete, with a document to prove it, the work stops. Sadly, few of your family members will care.

On the other hand, family history is… that Lewis has three daughters who fondly remember dancing with their father. It is me yearning for the opportunity to have danced with him.

Family history is… that Lewis Brown was an assistant bowling manager for Swan Lanes in Columbus, Ohio. He participated in numerous tournaments. He earned several prizes, including a silver tea set. Family history is the question of whether he ever bowled a 300 game. Two of his daughters remember differently.

Family history is… that Lewis Brown was a home delivery milkman for Borden’s. When he wasn't driving his route, he would usher football games at the Ohio State University stadium. When his delivery route changed and required working during home games, Lew would listen to the Buckeyes on the truck radio while making deliveries. Family history is the fact that one of his granddaughters would rather have gone to the rival university before attending Ohio State.

Family history is… that Lewis Brown served in the Army during World War II. His wife was left behind to care for his ailing mother. It is the fact that Lewis returned home, perhaps without permission, to see his new baby girl before traveling overseas to India. Family history is the fact that his children and grandchildren loved his military photo because his eyes seem to follow you around the room.

Family history is… that Lewis Brown died on his birthday at the age of 60. He left behind a wife, two married daughters with 5 grandchildren between them and one daughter still in high school. It’s the fact that his death was attributed to esophageal cancer caused by smoking. Family history is the fact that his entire family dearly missed him.

Family History is Your Family and Their Stories
Family history is Your Family + Their Stories
by Devon Lee
Family history is every story, every artifact, and all the memories that are found between the birth and death dates. No historical document you can find will tell the things I just shared, but they do make up who Lewis Sherman Brown was.
To continue reading this chapter and the the second section of the book with tips and suggestions on what you can and should be doing in the modern age of genealogy, order your copy of 21st Century Family History available in eBook from Amazon.com on September 1st with a print version to soon follow.

21st Century Family Historian
available on September 1st

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