Wednesday, December 8, 2010

How I Got Here - The Path to Becoming a Family Historian

[Please note this article has nothing to do with education or credentials]

In yesterday's blog post "Bridging Generations with Intent" I touched on the idea of raising and nurturing children to become family historians.  I thought that this would be good timing to follow it up with my own story.

Professional genealogists are often asked how they came to become professionals at genealogy.  It's almost as if non-genealogists are incredulous that someone could become a professional.  There is usually an anecdotal story that precedes the education and credentials.

In my case, I became interested in family history on my own, of my own initiative in 1999 when I was pregnant with my first child.  It is fairly common that major life events like the birth of children or grandchildren inspire people to seek out of a better understanding of their connection to their own family history.  By the time my third child was on the way I was completely absorbed in genealogy and family history research.  Shortly after that I decided I wanted to take it to the next level and become a professional.

I could end my story there.  That's the very "me" centered story.  It's accurate but it's not complete.  In the years since then I have pondered the question many times, "Why did I become a genealogist?"  The answer is much more involved and complex.  In all honesty, it was fairly inevitable.  Let me explain.

In order to answer this question for myself I had to look to the past.  Seems appropriate for a genealogist.  I had to recognize the incredible contribution that my mother had on shaping who I am. 

The Influential Genealogist

My mother was a genealogist, a very serious amateur, for as long as I could remember. And she was consistent.  There would never be a reunion or family gathering without my mother pulling out family group sheets, interviewing and taping the elders and generally asking questions about people who came before us.  She visited cemeteries in search of ancestors, celebrated the birthdays of dead relatives (which, as a kid, I always thought was kind of weird) and constantly talked about family heirlooms and the people who had owned them. Back in the '60s when my Mom was raising young children she would spend every Saturday researching at the Connecticut State Library. Without realizing it, my entire childhood was an apprenticeship for becoming a family historian though I didn't know it at the time.  Of course, now I have Mom to thank for all that.

Award for a Supporting Role

But if I'm going to be really honest, it wasn't all about Mom either.  How did Mom get to be like that anyway?  That answer to that is Dad.  It was only recently I learned that my Dad was also a family historian.  I'm not going to put him on the same level as my Mom because he hasn't maintained consistent activity throughout his whole life the way my Mom did.  But he has maintained his interest and curiosity throughout his life and stills drives me to solve those unanswered family questions.  The fun part is that now Dad and I can go on research trips together. 

Larger than Life Impact

But, no, that is really not the end of it either.  Mom and Dad became interested in family history under the strong influence of another family historian, Uncle Bill.  William Henry Edwards (1898 - 1976) was my grandfather's brother.  I have no living recollection of him but it is entirely possible that I met him.  Uncle Bill, from what I've been told by my parents, was a vivacious man with a passion for family history and the arts.  He so strongly influenced my parents that they developed their own interest not only in family history but also in a love of literature and poetry.  I think it is interesting that of all the potential disciples (my Dad, his brothers and their cousins (Uncle Bill's kids) it was my Dad and Mom who got bit with the genealogy bug.  No one else in the family took as quite a strong interest. (Though to be fair, I do believe Uncle Bill's son was interested in knowing and preserving the family history.)

Where it Began

And no, I'm still not quite done yet.  Uncle Bill had been influenced by his parents, Seeber Edwards and Sarah Estella Gurney.  At the end of the 19th century Seeber and Sarah were actively corresponding with relatives inquiring about family history.  They were also participating in those "mug books" and ensuring that their families were included.  Seeber was documenting his Edwards family and Sarah was researching the Gurneys.  What's interesting is that I have quite a bit of correspondence detailing their genealogical quest.  The letters still exist and have been passed down to me.

The paper trail and oral history ends with Seeber and Sarah.  Where did they get their desire to become family historians?  I'll never know if it was the fad of the times spurred on by the mug books or whether they were influenced by a previous generation to take great care of their family history.

As I evaluate how I got to this point in my life as a family historian and genealogist it is hard for me to deny the strong influence that has been passed through the generations.  I could say I became interested on my own and leave it at that.  But I think much greater forces were at work.  Because I was exposed to genealogy throughout my entire childhood I was much more inclined to take it up as an adult.

Those naysayers out there could be saying, look to your siblings as proof that exposure as a child doesn't turn people into genealogists.  Well, yes and no.  I have two brothers.  Neither of them are professional genealogists nor do they actively do research.  But both of them do have a very strong sense of family, a desire to know our family history and a real sense of tradition. And unlike many people, they are interested in listening to family stories and encouraging the preservation of family history.  So I'll say it rubbed off on them too.

My Message to You

My message to you is be an example for your children or grandchildren.  Don't force them to learn family history but consistently live your life so that you model in all your actions and interactions the importance of family history.  I would argue that that is one of the most effective ways to encourage future generations.

photo: Seeber Edwards and Sarah Estella Gurney c. 1897 with their first born son.


  1. How fortunate that your parents and ancestors were so interested in preserving family history and I can just imagine that the stories you have acquired are legion because of this. I am envious that your brothers will listen, mine would be bored stiff. My great grandfather left us a diary when he died in 1907 and my father's aunt did a partial transcrption of it (I am now transcribing the full diary) and gave copies to various family members back in 1994. That is my very simple story of where my interest started and it very quickly became an obsession..or an illness, LOL! I never thought to take it to a professional level though!

  2. Love this! I always wonder how and why people take the paths they take... My story is similar in that I developed a love of history through my father (who is an avid history show enthusiast) and through my mother (who was the keeper of the family stories and passed on tales of my grandparents escape from Europe during WWII.) I also had an influential teacher who steered me toward history at an early age...But your post is light-hearted and personal with an important larger message. I am dumbfounded when people say their kids are just not interested in their history. I'm also surprised that my second grader gets little exposure to history through school. We make history part of our every day lives in my home and I am confident that even if my child doesn't choose history in some form as a profession, she will at least have an appreciation for it and a greater sensibility regarding the world, its people, and humanity's relationships. Family history is important and we need to do a better job conveying that to children by sharing family stories, introducing genealogy, making museum visits a regular routine, discussing family heirlooms, and by encouraging the reading of historical biographies in subject areas that interest them.

  3. I suppose my earliest genealogical memory was stopping in a cemetery at the side of the road with my aunt Peggy. We did visit family grave sites, but I particularly remember reading the stones and seeing two or three wives of one man buried side by side.
    That started me wondering about the stories. Everybody has a story! I hope knowing about those individuals who came before us will give my kids a sense of grounding.

  4. Marian,

    Great story. Thank you.

    I 'got it' from one of my daughters. (long story) but she gave me program because she thought I needed something to do. Little did she know ...

    From a long line of Quakers, genealogy / family history through letters are in my family. Interesting that it skipped a generation. I asked my Dad, where were you when these stories were being told. He said, I'd rather be fishing.

    The good news, my older daughter has picked up her family history going back her mother's line. I guess it helped that as the 'kids' were growing up we would visit historical places.

    Like you, I have had some great 'research' trips with her.

    Doesn't get too much better then that.

    Thank you,


  5. Very interesting post, Marian! BTW, where are your Gurney's from? While I don't have any in my
    direct line, I have some Gurney cousins by marriage from the Abington and Whitman area.

  6. Bill, my Gurneys are from the Bridgewater area. Right in your neighborhood!

  7. Hmm. Then we very well might have a connection!

  8. Marian,
    I've given you the Ancestor Approved Award.
    You can pick it up at

  9. Marian,

    Interesting topic I'm going to compile, add to my 2-vol Whidden/Whitten genealogy/ history.

    Briefly here, my Mom/Dad knew little of their history: Mom's Mom died when she was 7 years old and her Dad never talked about life in Finland; Dad left home age 15 years old on a harvest excursion from NS to SK and only returned home once before he died age 80 in 1980, having moved to northern AB. Dad's brother, Percy, was the talker in the family and told me endless tales, long since forgotten about his family. His sister in NS told me some of that in letters, since lost, but the two sparked my interest. Cousins gave me a "Whidden Family of Nova Scotia" for Christmas about 1985 and the rest is history.

    The next thing I knew I was spending hours looking at NS census microfilms in the library and contacting people in the phone book. Getting an ex-spouse of a male Whidden from Florida sorta cured me of that as she was NOT the least complimentary about having known him.

    Eventually I got PAF v1.0 for CP/M on my Commodore C=128 as well the MS-DOS version as well so when my database outgrew the size of a 3.5" floppy disk I was able to move it to a new IBM compatible computer.

    Eventually, about 1994 when the internet became more available, I contacted a fellow researcher in MN whose father and grandfather had been trying to connect their PA branch to the NH bunch who came, supposedly from ENG in 1662, but had been unsuccessful in linking. A cousin of his in Boston who was a volunteer at NEHGS eventually made the connection so we combined my descendants from Samuel/ NH/1662 with his from John/1662 and the result ended up being 2-vol. 1650+ pages and printed about 20 copies, some paid for and other given to contributors.

    Four cousins from the two lines, two from each line have had their y-DNA-67 done and confirmed our paper relationship.

    It's been exciting and the next stage is to include the census info from US 1940 and CAN 1921 once they are released and print 2nd edition of "Whidden NH, NS and Beyond 1662-2002 a family odyssey."

    Cheers, Ray