Saturday, January 23, 2010

These Forgotten Things

Why do we research our ancestry? I suspect the reasons vary from individual to individual. Terrick FitzHugh, in his excellent book How to Write a Family History, quotes the opinion of an author of yesteryear, John Aubrey:

'The retrieving of these forgotten Things from Oblivion in some sort resembles the Art of a Conjuror who makes those walke and appeare that have layen in their graves many hundreds of years and to represent as it were to the eie [eye] the places, Customes and Fashions that were of old Times'.

Any family historian who has attempted to make their forebears 'walke and appeare' by finding out more about them and the times in which they lived, will agree that there is a magical element in such a task. But what is it that produces our initial stirrings of interest in the topic?

Readers of Thomas Hardy's novels will remember that, in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the heroine's father caused anguish and tragedy through his search for noble ancestry. This sort of 'snobbish' approach to genealogy is now considered old-fashioned. Most of us are content to accept our 19th c ag labs and are thrilled when an ancestor happens for some reason to stand out among the crowded branches of our family tree. We also realise that there's no such thing as an 'ordinary' ancestor: every ag lab has his story too.

I was fortunate enough to be encouraged from an early age by my mother to take an interest in family history. Another helpful aspect was my unusual surname, Gadsden - though I would discover later that it wasn't nearly as unusual as I then thought it was. Perhaps the most significant bit of luck was the fascinating local hero, a mariner named William Bell who occurred in my paternal line: lucky, because he had achieved recognition as a result of a brief moment of glory in our home town, so a certain amount of information about him had appeared in print. Even more intriguing, that glorious moment had been captured in a painting by a famous artist, featuring a depiction, centre-stage, of our mariner's ship. It was an irresistible combination of events and circumstances.

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