Family history continues to boom around the world, as more people want to understand their heritage, culture and even their DNA. Cassie Mercer lists 10 reasons to fall in love with family history.
1 You’re preserving your family’s history
An obvious reason to start with, of course. But in my experience there’s usually one person in a family who gets the genealogy bug, and becomes the keeper of the family photographs, knows the exact relationship between great grand uncle Alfred and cousin Clarence and says that your handwriting is exactly like Aunty Harriet’s. If that’s you then be proud. You’re allowing your ancestors to live on by documenting their stories. Your ensuring our history is being preserved and digitised. And you’re building a patchwork of information that will be saved and cherished by future generations.
2 You’ll make new friends
There’s a real community spirit with family history. I’ve been to many genealogy conferences around Australia and New Zealand and witnessed this firsthand. I’ve seen strangers swap information and offer advice to overcome brick walls. I’ve heard people say “Oh I live near that cemetery, I’ll drop by this week and search for your ancestor’s grave.” People are incredibly generous with their time and knowledge, and you’ll find yourself reciprocating that. The best way to ensure you widen your network is by joining a family history society. They’re there to help you with your research so google them in your local area and drop by the next meeting.
3 You’ll meet new family
I recently covered a story for Ancestry about this very fact, when I interviewed a lovely man who had emigrated from the UK to Australia decades ago. Not knowing much about his family, he decided to take an AncestryDNA® test and the results led him to discover a half-sister living in Canada. You can read the full story here.
But stories like these aren’t rare occurrences. When I was publishing Inside History magazine from 2010 to 2017, I met many people who would tell me that they started researching their family tree only to find a cousin living in the next street who they never knew existed. Or in the next neighbourhood. True stories. Family history really is amazing at bringing strangers together.
4 You’ll become an ace detective
Family history is all about looking for clues that will help you solve a mystery. It could be trying to find where an ancestor is buried. Why someone moved to the other side of the world to marry, leaving their entire family behind. Whatever the circumstances, it’s your job to look for the breadcrumbs in the historical records. Family history demands sharp investigative skills, backed up with finding enough evidence to prove (or discard) your theory. It uses logic, computer skills, problem-solving, mathematics and intuition. Keep investigating and you’ll be as sharp as Hercule Poirot in no time.
5 And here comes the really cool bit. Family history can make you smarter
In 2010 researchers in Austria discovered that thinking about our ancestors can boost our performance on intelligence tests. They called this the ‘ancestor effect’. They proved their theory by asking undergraduate students to either think about their ancestors for five minutes or think about a recent shopping trip. The groups who thought about their ancestors were more confident afterwards in their abilities to pass exams, and attempted to answer more questions. Three further studies showed that thinking or writing about their recent or distant ancestors led students to actually perform better on a range of intelligence tests, including verbal and spatial tasks.
Their conclusion? That “normally, our ancestors managed to overcome a multitude of personal and society problems, such as severe illnesses, wars, loss of loved ones or severe economic declines. So, when we think about them, we are reminded that humans who are genetically similar to us can successfully overcome a multitude of problems and adversities.”
6 You’ll understand more about your local history
One of the most important things about family history is it helps you to understand your local and social history, and appreciate Australia’s multiculturalism. If you’re still living in the same local area as your ancestors then you’re uncovering how the area was built, why it was important, who and what the historical buildings housed. It’s an appreciation that you can hand down to the next generations.
7 What you discover will surprise you
Every family has a story to tell. You may think that your relatives were ’10-pound Poms’ who migrated over, raised a family, were law-abiding and well, maybe you think that’s a little dull. But there are always stories in the records – stories of love, hope, despair, elation. Family history will take you on all those journeys, no matter who your family was. And the more you uncover, the more you’ll want to keep exploring.
8 You’ll travel the world, even if you never leave home
Which takes me to my next reason to fall in love with family history – it’ll take you around the globe, and you’ll learn about different cultures, even if you never end up visiting them. Suddenly there’s a connection with another country, a personal connection, and you’ll understand your ancestors a little more by researching what they left behind – and why.
9 You can actually travel the world
Even better, you can visit those very places. And many people are doing just that – there’s been a huge increase in recent years of people wanting to trace their ancestor’s footsteps through travel.
My paternal grandparents were the ubiquitous 10-pound, law-abiding Poms who emigrated to Sydney in the 1920s. I never met them as they passed away before I was born, but I’ve stood outside the Georgian terrace house in London where they lived before they left the UK. I could imagine them closing the gate for the last time, holding their suitcases as they embarked on the biggest journey of their lives into the unknown. Which leads me to my last point.
10 It’ll get personal.
Not to end this story by getting existential or anything but learning about your ancestors actually helps you discover more about yourself. After all, it’s their blood coursing through your veins.
Learning about how our ancestors overcame adversity for instance, gives you a stronger sense of identity and resilience. One of my convict ancestors, Jane Maher, was transported on the Britannia, arriving in Sydney in 1797. It was dubbed a hell ship due to the sadistic nature of the ship’s captain, who was paranoid about a mutiny occurring during the voyage. He withheld rations from the convicts, wouldn’t let them exercise on deck, and had a least one convict flogged to death. Two women committed suicide by jumping overboard. My ancestor lived through that and survived. She started a bakery at the Rocks within a year of her arrival. I like to think that her strength has helped give me strength too.
You may think that researching ancestors who lived 100, 200, 300 years ago won’t really impact you – these people who you’ve never met, and who are names on a historical record. But when you see their photographs, read their handwriting on a document, and piece together their lives, you’ll realise why so many people around the world are falling in love with family history.
Cassie Mercer founded the award-winning magazine Inside History in 2010. The history bug struck her when she discovered the story of her 5x great grandparents – in the late 1700s in Ireland, one was a highwayman and the other was the madam of a brothel, of the Lower Sort.