Monday, July 15, 2013

You will help the historians

History is made up of much more than things like wars, political intrigue, and other large-scale events. History is made up of the day to day events. That's what is called social history. I have a particular love of social history. I am also interested in immigration history as well, because the two kind of feed into one another. Social history is about the regular folks.

The difficulty in putting together the history of regular people like you and me is that people's record keeping abilities are not all created equal. The reason why we have so many primary source documents for things like wars, elections, and economic issues is because newspapers recorded them. The every day things of peoples' lives had to be preserved, and not everyone did that. Things like literacy, time, and the cost of paper contributed to it. If you happen to find someone in the very hard-hit areas of Western Canada who managed to write during the Depression, you would find a gem. If you find a woman who managed to find time to write, you've found an even more rare gem. People just didn't have time.

Language barriers were also an issue. The ancestors on my father's side came from Belgium. When they settled into their communities, they tended to settle where other French-speakers (or, in the case of my paternal grandfather, Flemish) lived. Their small communities, without telephone or other communication means, tended to be isolated. These language barriers are present when one even finds letters or documents. My father spoke French first, but he lost it by the time I was eight years old because he didn't use it. The loss of people's recorded lives is definitely affected by this loss of language. And yes, it happens right here in Canada. Aboriginal people also suffered from the loss of their own languages.

Recently, I was doing some poking around on Ancestry.ca. I have an account there where I research family history on my side as well as my husband's side. It can be a laborious, frustrating process, because of this lack of written records. The information for my mother's father's family is almost non-existent. One of the reasons may be because no one kept records, not even birth dates and death dates.

One of the most important starting points for looking into our personal family histories is the birth date and death date.  We have to start somewhere, and often the birth or death certificate is the place. One cannot even search the information of something like Ancestry without those dates.  On the weekend, I was able to see the lineage from an ancestor of mine going all the way back to France in the 1600s, just with birth dates alone.

One way we can contribute to the history of our country is to keep records of who we were.  It doesn't have to be detailed.  It doesn't have to be grand. Someone in the future may find the ordinary things you did very interesting, indeed. To help preserve the history of our families for future generations, keeping accurate birth and death records is vital.

One way I have begun to keep records is to photograph headstones.  Yes, it sounds morbid, but it's a good way to have accurate information. Two years ago, I was able to capture a few images, and this summer, I hope to capture a few more. Historical societies are often helpful in locating a grave marker of a family member long-deceased if we can't find one. I wanted to find my great-great grandfather's headstone in St. Alphonse, Manitoba two years ago, but I didn't find it. The Manitoba Historical Society graciously helped me by giving me that information.

History starts with people; people like you and me. We can help historians of the future by keeping records of births, deaths, baptisms, marriages, and the like. And if you want to help even more, save pieces of paper and processed photographs. In this digital age, they could be very valuable some day.