Family Stories – A Meta-History

I first became interested in genealogy when I was a teenager – far younger than most genealogy enthusiasts.  My family history did not fit the usual mold for my region: while I was a European-Canadian, my ancestors had come to Canada long before 1900. Thus associating “family trees” with “immigration”, “the family farm”, and “Multicultural Day” was always embarrassing and annoying. I can only begin to imagine what it must be like for adoptees, children in the foster care system, or children who have painful family histories.

With a lot of help from my relatives, especially my grandmother, and after many long hours searching online (circa the year 2000), I discovered that a) I could indeed trace my ancestry out of Canada, albeit a lot longer than three or four generations; and b) I had lots of family farms to choose from, and a lot of varied immigration stories, none of which involved a train. I also learned that I had a very multicultural background, albeit still of the rather white European variety.

I had long been told that my relatives were United Empire Loyalists and Irish economic refugees, but through my research, I discovered that they were a mix of English, French, Dutch, German, Irish, and Scottish immigrants. (Countries not being quite the same as they are today, many of them would have identified themselves differently.) Some had come to the future United States in the 1600s and early 1700s, mostly settling into what is now the environs of New York City. Others came directly to what is now the province of New Brunswick – a mixture of economic refugees, disbanded soldiers, and colonizing enterprises.

Since first discovering this family history, I have continued to pursue further. I was always more interested in finding out how far back I could go than making everything neat and tidy. Furthermore, the more removed one is from the individuals in question, the more everything really just feels like a list of names and dates.

More recently, I have begun to wonder about the stories. There are little snippets throughout the records, but for the most part, there is nothing concrete beyond the mid-1800s, and family oral history only goes back so far. For every new piece of information, for every new name on a chart, there are more mysteries.

Here is where genealogy – and history, for that matter – is not science. It is often impossible to know for certain even what year a person was born (a hard fact), let alone what they ate for breakfast, and even less likely to know what they actually liked to eat for breakfast.

But it is possible indeed to speculate!

There are many questions that I know I will never have the answer to. How did the 35-year-old Prussian end up married to a 16-year-old Irishwoman? Why does the same woman seem to have four first names across several sources? How come I cannot find my great-great-great-grandmother on any census? What was it like to be an early immigrant to what would eventually be Canada? How many ways was the same name spelled?

Some of these questions can be answered with a lot of digging, but ultimately, most of them are educated guesses. Nonetheless, I can still tell my family stories. They might not be 100% accurate, but they will give back some life to the names & dates.

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In between television, book, and film posts, as well as rants, musings, and fiction, I will post more family stories.

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