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Teach Family History in Schools!

...and our kids will learn to love history

Most students don't actually hate learning about history, they just don't see the significance and connection to their life. First and foremost, teachers must address their question: "Why do I need to know this? Why should I care what happened in the 1600s [or other period]? What's the connection to me?"

Keeping in mind that intrinsic learning is the ideal, what can we do to re-activate that inner curiousity and desire to learn? How can we picque their interest in events that occurred centuries ago? How can we turn a disinterested history student into a history buff?

It is possible to achieve a significant increase in excitement over learning history. How? Make history fun and interesting by adding a Genealogy Class to your history curriculum. Genealogy [aka family history] is the fine art of tracing one's family roots.

Why would tracing one's family history cause an increase in one's interest in history? It creates a personal connection. True, the student didn't live in those historic times, but their ancestors did. When they start learning about their ancestors and truely caring about who they were, where and how they lived, it naturally follows that they'd want to know what hardships their ancestors endured. That is history - family history.

To find the answers to these questions and the many other questions that will arise, students will use numerous researching skills. They will:

  • learn how to search records; i.e. birth, marriage, death, land, wills, burial, probate, court cases, war records, and others.
  • plot out and research the area in which their ancestors lived.
  • locate where their ancestors are buried.
  • learn how to do cemetery stone rubbings.
  • learn how to research cemeteries and document their findings.
  • learn how to compose letters requesting information from relatives and from governmental agencies.
  • learn how to research the newspaper morgue is search of old articles.
  • visit the genealogical libraries to record the research previously done by others.
  • access websites dedicated to researching family trees.
  • learn how to interview relatives listening intently, as new information will prompt more and deeper questions.
  • locate and scan pictures of ancestors that will resemble now-living relatives.
  • And more researching techniques.

To carry the research further, students can investigate the conditions [physical and political] at the time of the ancestors being researched. For instance:

  • How did their ancestors survive the Great Depression?
  • What illnesses and epidemics ravaged the countryside and what toll did they take on the families? When were cures for those diseases discovered?
  • What clothing and fashions were in style; how were they constructed and what did they cost?
  • What were the various wars fought over and what side in the Civil War and Revolutionary War did their ancestors take and why?
  • How did their ancestors make a living; what skills did they acquire; what wages were earned; and was it enough to support a family of their size? Were they considered poor, middle class, or rich according to the standards of the time?
  • How did they travel, what did it cost and did they travel often?
  • What foods did they eat? How did they keep their food from spoiling?
  • How much and what kind of schooling did they get?
  • How important was religion in their family lives?
  • At what age did most girls marry? what of the boys? When did they have children and how large was an average size family?
  • What was the average age that a man lived? a woman?
  • What kind of recreation did the children enjoy? Adults?
  • Without electricity, how did they heat and cool their homes?
  • ...and countless other questions will cross their mind.

In researching their ancestors, they may see the resemblance between a great-grandfather and their brother, who has a patrician nose, blond hair and deep blue eyes. The same great-grandfather that fell off a hay wagon onto a pitchfork after drinking too much alcohol; dying a few weeks later. And will they feel compassion for the woman who was then forced to raise her children alone because of his recklessness? Questions they might be encouraged to research?

  • How did the man make his living and could his wife take over after he died to support herself and her children in the 1850s?
  • What medical procedures would have been followed to help the man?
  • Where were the hospitals and clinics in the area?
  • Was he an alcoholic? Was alcoholism a problem in the 1850s?
  • What was the funeral procedure and burial process in the 1850s?
  • What religion were they and what records are on file with the church?
  • Who were the relatives that offered support - financial and physical?
  • Was he a property owner and what happened to his property after his death? What was his property worth at that time?
  • Did he leave a will, and if so, what information can be gleaned from it?
  • ...and so many other questions

In researching my own family history, I discovered my grandfather Philip [Bud] was nicknamed "Trap Door Johnny" and actually made moonshine for Al Capone during prohibition. With his illegal income, he was able to support his family and give them many things. After prohibition, he had to take a job in a Galena coal mine. His wife, Hilde, went to work in the battery factory. They had a stormy relationship that was exacerbated by his drinking and her severe moods when she went through the "change of life". They had eight children, the youngest, William, died at the tender age of eighteen months. His funeral was held in the parlor of their home, making it nearly impossible for his older sister to walk through the parlor for many years. What questions did I have after finding out the information?

  • What was prohibition? Why did crime escalate during prohibition?
  • What is moonshine? What is it made of? How could it be dangerous? How was it transported? What was the sentence if caught delivering? making? or selling moonshine?
  • What was it like to work in the coal mine?
  • How common was it for women to work at that time?
  • What was the name of the battery factory and what were its wages?
  • What medical condition might the grandmother have had that caused her to become violent during menopause?
  • What was the toddler's cause of death? Can we effectively treat the condition now?
  • Was it customary for people to have funeral services in their homes in the 1900s?

Another great-great grandfather, John Lake, left his wife and son at home while he joined the army during the Civil War and served in the Wisconsin Infantry only to become seriously ill. He was sent to a hospital to recover. He survived the illiness but was paralyzed on one side of his body for nearly twenty years. He was sent home after months of hospitalization and fathered four more children. They were very religious and joined a sect nicknamed the Dunkards. His mother-in-law, Sarah, lived with him, his wife, Diantha and their family. Sarah died of Typhoid. The questions that required further research were?

  • Why, if John Lake lived in Illinois, did he join the Civil War in Wisconsin?
  • What illness did he succumb to in the harsh conditions of the Civil War? Why did he not obtain a full recovery?
  • What symptoms cause Typhoid? Was it common in the area and time of Sarah's death?
  • Did John obtain a pension or disability as a result of his illness? Are there Civil War records on file?
  • What church did they belong to? What were its beliefs?

The instructor can get assistance from the following sources:

  • Family History Centers [LDS Church] have incredible archives and information
  • Genealogical libraries - in the northern Illinois/southern Wisconsin area [Rockford, Chicago, Madison]
  • Government sources - birth, marriage, death records, land records, wills and land plat maps.
  • Cemeteries - stones, records [some include who purchased the plot]
  • Books - often kept in Historical Libraries. [Some include entire genealogies.]
  • Ellis Island and ship logs - Sometimes only the surnames, sometimes families.
  • Census records - Genealogical library - UW Madison, LDS FH Centers
  • Church records - Marriage, baptism, blessings,
  • Wills - tells of family relationships and the financial situation
  • Old yearbooks - often found in the local libraries
  • Elderly individuals who will share their life experiences
  • Genealogists - LDS church will assist free of charge
  • Local historians will speak to the class about conditions in early Winnebago County
  • Websites dedicated to searching one roots
  • Historic Museums should be visited

To complete the class students should fill out and work on their own 4-generation sheet. Family Group Sheets for each family should to be completed. [Documentation is essential in true pedigree charts.] A compilation of information should be turned in / and or a presentation should be given. If an oral presentation is required, the students can relate some humorous and heroic stories of their ancestors. Food, fashions, hairstyles, pictures, etc. should be included in the presentation. If there are a number of students researching the same area and era, it is possible they could each take on a different aspect of the physical / and or political research.


Editor's note:
The residual effect of learning family history is to have a new appreciation for those who came before us. To effectively research family history one must work with family members. Parents and grandparents are needed to share information. Picture albums are dusted off and opened after years of neglect. Stories are shared. Families are unified and new bonds are formed. I will admit that it is possible that researching one's ancestors might create tension, among families that are unsettled, but I have only observed laughter, compassion and tears in those I've known who have taken on this project.

Connie Eccles, CEO of ComPortOne


Other articles by ComPortOne Editor, Connie Eccles
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