Genealogy as a window to the past

At various points over the last two years I’ve conducted some research into my family’s history. I had always been aware of some family mysteries and I found the process of learning how to trawl through old records online quite meditative. My wife and I had a baby and I became interested in where we’d come from as well as where we’re going.

CharlesAndEmilyAlthough some distant relatives had written family histories, the advent of online databases and DNA testing has drastically increased the reach of casual researchers and I was able to track down all known primary documents in a matter of weeks, instead of decades. Subsequently I have managed to extend the family tree by a couple of generations, but I don’t intend for this post to focus on the specifics of my family tree – which are mostly personal and boring!

With every generation the number of one’s ancestors generally doubles, but record quality drops. Before 1800 I’m lucky if I can find a complete set of birth, marriage and death records for any given relative. Often a degree of lateral thinking is required to find misspelled records or misattributed paternity. It helps to have a working knowledge of early modern European geography.

While more recent ancestors’ lives are relatively well documented, what little evidence of more distant ancestors’ existence remains still tells a story. Even the scant metadata of a name and a few dates and locations still gives insight into their lives and thoughts, in the aggregate.

What was I surprised to learn?

Like many Australians, most of my ancestors immigrated to the continent between 1830 and 1870, generally from the British Isles and generally from a position of illiteracy and grinding poverty, where their parents lived and died as landless itinerant peasant agricultural laborers.

One of my earliest memories is my grandmother describing her uncles from an old family photo. One of the six had died in infancy. My grandmother said “you see, people had big families in the old days and often lost a child.” What I have realized since is that my most distant ancestors born in Australia, the generation before my grandparents, were part of large and relatively healthy families, where one or perhaps two children died in childhood. Among the previous generation, particularly the Welsh, it wasn’t unusual for all but one or two children, out of ten, to die in childhood.

In summary, in 1800s Britain and Australia, people lived short and difficult lives, often getting sick and dying with little warning, and of diseases we barely know today. Vaccines, hygiene, and basic nutrition have easily doubled our life expectancy.

I have visited a few of the places where my ancestors lived more than a hundred years ago and it’s hard to imagine how their lives unfolded. At some point they upped and left, deciding to spend almost a year on a dangerous sea voyage, then began again from scratch in a strange, unknown country, in places which even now are quite isolated.

I asked my grandparents if there was any family lore about the voyages or their lives in Europe, but very little was passed down, even in cases where they didn’t actively suppress family history. My grandfather said that his family was full of horror stories about coastal steam boats going aground, but little regarding the outbound voyage, except that it was long.

I’m particularly interested in the era of voyages as an analogy to human exploration of Mars, which will also take many months and end at a distant and unknown world. Several important differences exist, however. Future voyagers to Mars will be highly trained experts and have the benefit of advanced technology. Nor will they be displacing indigenous people, who were decimated in Australia during the same period by disease and murder. Indeed, despite living side by side for at least a generation, I know of only a few passing references to indigenous people in my family’s records.

It’s a shame so little from before 1800 survives, but we’re lucky to have anything at all. Not only were the people illiterate, often their whole communities were also illiterate and records patchy at best – sometimes even the scribe seems to be barely able to write. Tracing handwriting and notary signatures in a small town for decades also gives a picture of the careers, lifestyle, and health of these clerical workers.

As a hobby, genealogy has brought me into contact with a variety of mostly much older people with whom I otherwise have little in common. I’ve learned a few valuable lessons, particularly the importance of documenting progress as I go along. Too many elderly researchers have died before getting around to writing it all down, depriving posterity of their hard-earned discoveries.

Excepting issues that pertain to living relatives, there’s very little urgency and I feel comfortable leaving some mysteries for future generations to unravel. That said, if I can solve one more problem, I would love to get a bit more insight into the origins of my family name: Handmer. Through a combination of DNA and record searches I’ve closed in on both ends but its history through the 1700s remain a mystery…

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