Genealogy brings history to life

Several years ago, my father and I were visiting his family in the heartland; I came in from eastern U.S., dad came in from western U.S., and in the middle we met.  We took a day out of visiting with family to have a rare father-daughter mini road-trip to rekindle that old bond; connecting over similar thoughts and ideologies, sometimes just silently sitting next to each other while life moved slowly along.  We were driving around the country roads to go nowhere in particular; just killing time. 

Dad, like many in our family, is a bit of a history buff.  I like genealogy.  My Uncle is fascinated with World War history.  Dad’s interest lay with Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corp of Discovery

Meriwether Lewis (left) and William Clark (right)

Dad was aimlessly navigating through areas he had grown up around.  He had been an avid outdoorsman in his youth and highly active in the Boy Scouts, so his childhood range was more extensive than anyone would allow their children today. Despite his years away on his life adventures, he was still intimately familiar with the places and landmarks we passed as well as the memories of people who lived along those same roads and little towns. 

I listened to him tell about how he had played along the banks of the Missouri River and pretended to be a member of Lewis and Clark’s party.  Since childhood, he has read all the books, all the research, even the manuscripts.  Part of this visit was to plan his own Corp of Discovery and tow a boat from St. Louis to the Pacific coast so that he could attempt to travel both the land and water routes believed to have been taken by the expedition.

We passed a roadside marker dedicated to Lewis and Clark, and dad informed me, “You know, these markers are just guesses.  They don’t really know where the events in the manuscripts happened; just little clues in the writings.”  And of course, the terrain had changed significantly between the time the adventurers were there and the erection of the markers.

The National Archives interactive DocsTeach site for the Corps of Discovery.

He told me, with boyish animation, all the interesting tidbits he knew about the expedition and wondered aloud at what the land must have looked like back then.  He asked if I could imagine traveling as they did, instead of in the comfort of an air condition automobile on a paved road (ok it was gravel and sometimes chip and seal).  

And I could imagine. I finally saw an opportunity to make a new connection with dad.  He had, on a few occasions, reflected that he could not understand why I cared about family history.  He’s never discouraged me; he just can’t understand my fascination.  Those people are dead and I will never know them. Sometimes these ancestors weren’t very nice people either.  So why remember them?

I told him that when I researched our ancestors, especially our early American ancestors, I thought about them the same way he thought about Lewis and Clark, who are well documented but not necessarily accurately.  The same thing can be said about our ancestors.  I used the example of the DeJean’s.  I reminded him that the DeJean family had fled from France during the French Revolution, arriving in New York around 1795.  I then tied the two events together.  

Napoleon Bonaparte had taken control of France by 1799 and in 1803 had revoked America’s port access in the Louisiana Territory.  President Thomas Jefferson’s response was the expedition to the Pacific Ocean.  Stephen DeJean was a child when he came to America before the Corps of Discovery set out on their infamous journey.  By the time it started in 1804, Stephen was a young man in New York and had married a few years later before serving with his brothers in the War of 1812. 

Snippets of an 1804 map of New York state by Simeon DeWitt found at David Rumsey Map Collection. Notice on the closeup of Genessee that no roads are recorded in this county in 1804.

I told dad of the genealogical “gold mines” I have come across courtesy of other researchers who hold family gems in private collections.  One such jackpot are letters written by Stephen’s oldest daughter. These private manuscripts are (for me) equal to the Corp of Discovery manuscripts at the Library of Congress. She wrote those letters to her children, who had migrated to the Iowa frontier, applauding their strength and endurance while recounting her own New York frontier experiences.  You see, when Stephen relocated his family to western New York around 1814-1817, it was still frontier.  Farmers had to clear their land, build their homes and barns, before having to work the land themselves.  Once it got too crowded, he moved his family even further west to the Wisconsin territory (1837/8) – before it became a state in 1848 – and did it all over again with his adult sons.  They were members of that faceless and nameless westward push lead by Thomas Jefferson through Lewis and Clark’s mission.

My efforts paid off. Dad finally understood how I could be as excited over breaking down genealogical brick walls as he was about imagining life in a westward expedition.  The lives of our ancestors bring American History to life for me. Knowing where our ancestors were at given points in our young country’s history helps me make that connection.  When I have a large enough picture of an ancestor, I start to marry their life to points in history – something I have tried to capture from time to time in my blog articles.  And like my father, I sit back and imagine what life was like for them all those years ago, and how their perseverance resulted in my life.  

Our ancestors are my very own private “Lewis and Clark.”  They are not as prominent as those men; at least they didn’t make it into any academic history lessons (by name anyway).  Still, they are no less important in history for me because it’s my study of their lives that bring history to life for me.  I have learned some interesting side-notes about historical events and American policies through genealogy.

Chester County Historical Society (Pennsylvania) has one of several collections of period clothing. These collections help to envision lifestyles of both our paternal and maternal ancestors.