Two recent events – the appearance of “rock star” Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Arkansas, and Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas and United States – remind us about the challenges our forebears in America faced and their options for handling them. How much do we know of what befell our ancestors as they built Arkansas and America? Learning about it is part of the “forced reckoning” of genealogy. It’s almost like questions on “Jeopardy!”
Health and Weather Affected Family History
At a packed Verizon Arena in North Little Rock, Ginsburg discussed her battles with colon and pancreatic cancer, and mentioned that her mother and husband also struggled with cancer. Ginsburg, remarkable because of her legal career and her health perseverance, has stoically trudged on because, she said, she is passionate about her work.
Diseases that wiped out whole communities were not uncommon in our history. Moroever, our ancestors’ health histories may partially predict current family medical issues, and some information about them may need to go on the family tree.
Hurricane Dorian, with its unpredictable wide swath of death and destruction, reminds us of the famous Galveston hurricanes of 1874 and 1900, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Dust Bowl, and many other events of nature such as the 1927 flood that devastated nearly half of our Arkansas counties.
In 2019, disease and natural disasters plague us, but ways of predicting them and options for recovering are exponentially greater.
To get to know ancestors and our own heritage, we are eager to hear about their triumphs and joys, and often the family stories passed down through generations help us feel as if we lived parts of their lives with them. They sparkle.
Less often are we aware of the early challenges our ancestors faced, such as early death, from war, harsh weather conditions or disease. We also don’t know of some other conditions they faced that are less common today, and this is especially true of immigrant ancestors, arguably the most vulnerable of our family members. Sometimes our forebears overcame the adversity in amazing ways, and understandings about that are inspiring.
Ten Family Questions
As we reweave the family tapestry by learning and writing about our ancestors, here are some issues to explore.
- Have we avoided one side of the family because of research brick walls or family prejudices? May we re-investigate now to discover new resources?
- Were our ancestors literate? When did education begin in the family? Upward mobility usually means fewer children within one or two generations.
- Do we know our ancestors’ religious affiliations, ethnic, or cultural origins that brought on discrimination?
- Do we know if they faced naturalization process hitches because of jobs like moving around to work on farms or the railroads? Did untrue advertising attract them to America?
- Were ancestors enslaved people or slave owners (by either our direct ancestors or other family members)? Did we have indentured servants or any runaways in the family?
- Were ancestors in repeated military service (such as in two wars), or have early injuries/deaths that affected the family over time? Women’s early roles increased, if so.
- Did any suffer internment elsewhere or in the United States? Were any moved off their lands to make way for others?
- Were there displaced or orphan train children? (January 2020: new adoption and orphan records will be unsealed from New York State, where many ancestors first lived before spreading out across America.) Hardships from farming, mining, construction, railroading accidents and work?
- Were any of our ancestors mentally ill/disabled? Any desperadoes, mischief makers, jailbirds in our bloodlines?
- Did any become entrepreneurs in the city or innovators or on the farm and catapult the family into newer, better status in one generation? Did we have any sharecroppers, servants, adoptees who were rewarded in important ways by employers or adoptive parents after long service?
Sleuthing It Out
If we were to add an 11th question just for fun, it might be this: which of our ancestors inspire us because they made important differences, in whatever realms, or because we see ourselves as like them? And to answer the eleventh question, we probably need to investigate answers to the first ten.
There are websites about natural disasters ancestors faced. One is GenDisasters.com, “events that touched our ancestors’ lives.” The variety of topics covered here is surprising and interesting. Likewise, newspapers collections found at the Arkansas State Archives, historical societies and libraries and also online, are wonderful contemporary providers of context for information about our families. There are YouTube videos about historic events in American cities as well as books that catalogue health and weather events.
For genetics home reference medical history information, click here. For terminology, meanings, and descriptions of illnesses, click here. If you have “lost” a group of ancestors or have wondered why some died within weeks or months of each other,
this may be a chance to finally understand that mystery. The AncestorHunt Coroner Records and Indexes page may help
The experiences we discover by asking those 10 questions for our forebears help us know more about ourselves. As author Ariel Dorfman wrote in Darwin’s Ghosts, “Each human contains within himself, within herself, all their ancestors, a trove of what was seen and heard and smelled and touched, residues of certain experiences that drastically impressed them, pressed into them, expressed who they were.”
Jeanne Rollberg is a genealogy specialist with American Dream Genealogy and Research who serves on the boards of the Friends of the Arkansas State Archives and the Arkansas Genealogical Society. She teaches genealogy classes at LifeQuest of Arkansas and the Arkansas Extended Learning Center.