The “Why” of Genealogy and Family History

why genealogyGenealogy expert Thomas MacEntee of High Definition Genealogy attempts to put into words why he does genealogy and what tracing his roots has meant to him.

As I’ve become more involved in the genealogy community and I’ve built up my own genealogy-related business, I find I am often asked to give interviews. I like being interviewed and I will reply to almost any request for an interview as long as the questions are genealogy-related and it helps bring more people into the family history community.

In addition, after moderating many panels for genealogy conferences and events, plus hosting my own radio show, it is fun to be on the other end of the microphone, as it were, providing my thoughts on genealogy.

The Question: Why Do You Do Genealogy?

Invariably, one question is almost always on the list provided by the interviewer: “Why do you do genealogy?”

My usual response “Well, why not do genealogy?” gets a few laughs, but really doesn’t stress the importance of why I and millions of others are obsessed with tracing their ancestry and heritage. Do you ever get so wrapped up in the “hunt” that you sometimes lose focus as to why you want to know more about your ancestors? Is “doing genealogy” such a large part of your life that the motivational factors sometimes defy description? Do you have trouble putting into words what researching your roots means to you?

I’m Not Crazy, Really. I’m Just Genealogy-Obsessed

Many of my friends not only call me “genealogy obsessed,” but whenever I mention my latest find or how I recently visited a cemetery, they think it is just one more mile post on the road to “Crazy Town.”

They fear that I’ve become the equivalent of an ancestor “hoarder” and that they’ll have to tunnel through 20 years’ worth of genealogical records to find my body one day. When I use terms like “citing sources” or “ahnentafels” to them I may as well be speaking in tongues. The fact that I can draw a four generation tree of my family from memory does not mesmerize them. It only gives them hard evidence in the form of a written document to be used when and if I should be committed.

I don’t think it is really that bad. However, when I attempt to explain the things I do (which seem normal as a genealogist), I get frustrated. It is like trying to explain to someone why you follow a certain spiritual path or a specific faith.

Genealogy Is a Journey of Faith

Could the passion for genealogy actually be similar to one’s own faith, one’s own spiritual compass? In my eyes, faith is something that evolves over time, just as one’s passion/obsession for genealogy also evolves. Both represent a journey often to a destination unknown. Let’s look at the similarities…

  • If we’re lucky, we discover genealogy when we are young, either through an older family relative or at school.
  • Our family members may have stressed the importance of knowing our heritage, of telling family stories and sharing old photos.
  • We may have dabbled with different hobbies in college, but we always came back to genealogy.
  • We attend weekly or monthly gatherings where we meet with other genealogists and discuss what genealogy means to us.
  • Our community has leaders and those who preach about various aspects of genealogy. Some are so popular that we pack classrooms and worship them as idols.
  • We keep the family traditions and place them in context by explaining to others in the family the origins of certain customs and practices.
  • Old documents and records not only feed our obsession, but we often hunger for more and are willing to volunteer our time indexing them and advocating for their unfettered access.
  • You know another genealogist either when you see them or the minute you start talking to them. There is a certain kinship, a certain bonding as you swap surnames and discuss your brick walls.

See, it really isn’t such a far-fetched an idea after all. Genealogy brings meaning to our lives in so many ways that, again, we can’t often explain it, even to our close loved ones. It is a path, a journey and has its own strange practices and routines.

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So how do you put all this in words when attempting to answer that “why” question? It might just be easier to “show” rather than tell. I’ve learned that once I can show a person photos, stories and how my ancestors fit into history, I get to see that arched eyebrow, or that glimmer in the eye. Then I know I’ve started to make sense.

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3 Responses to The “Why” of Genealogy and Family History

  1. Jimmy Opot Alando June 20, 2019 at 10:29 pm #

    For me I’m obsessed with genealogy too
    Let me say it’s passion and fun blended together ,hope you understand what I mean,

    I’ve gone up to twentieth ancestor,…any project we can work together?

  2. Joseph Harris February 21, 2019 at 8:26 pm #

    I began genealogy 55 years ago when I was 12. My grandmother had heard a speaker describe membership in the DAR and decided to send in her membership fee. The DAR returned her check along with what I thought was a very nice, encouraging letter describing the process of establishing her eligibility for membership. My grandmother did not know where to begin and enlisted my help. Back then, of course, we did not have computers, so my search consisted of my visiting libraries, transcribing family records, and talking to elderly relatives at our family reunions. My grandmother died without my helping her establish her eligibility, but I was hooked. Throughout my high school, college, and graduate school days, I continued accumulating information on my family. As a psychologist whose job frequently includes incorporating family information in forensic friend-of-the-court psychological reports, I have relied heavily on skills I learned in genealogy such as constructing genograms and researching families. I have over 20,000 photographs and have digital copies of more than 1,500 family-related documents. I have nearly finished scanning in all of my files and am still researching, especially my “brick wall” ancestors. Most recently, I have been researching my wife’s British family and have connected to her family in the UK.

  3. Amy Winters January 24, 2019 at 1:54 pm #

    Thanks for pointing out that doing genealogy can help you understand the origin and context of family traditions. My friend recently started doing genealogy. It’d be fun to learn more about our family traditions, so I think I’ll give it a try too.

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