August 7, 2012 by LeVoyageur
It is frequently the case when I am “doing genealogy” that mostly what I am doing is just ‘clicking around’ – following links in various databases, going off on flights of fancy, following other people’s un-sourced family trees with their spurious links back to Charlemagne. It can be fun, but it’s rarely time well spent. You can’t really call it procrastination when it’s a hobby, but you get the idea. It’s the genealogy equivalent of surfing the web.
Lately I’ve been doing a lot of that. But on some days I actually get down to the nitty-gritty of researching mysterious family lines and uncover documents that prove links from generation to generation. Those are satisfying days and when they come along there are not enough hours in the day to enjoy the pursuit before other matters press in. I had such a day recently, which drew me ever closer to proving my descent from Zacharie Cloutier, who arrived with the first wave of emigration from France to Quebec in the early 1600s.
I’ve tried to figure out why some days of genealogical searching just don’t ever go beyond the ‘clicking around’ stage. What I’ve concluded is that viewing names and dates is not inherently interesting, even if it’s your own family. On the other hand, I do enjoy reading old records and coming up with a timeline of life events: baptism, marriage, children, property, death and burial. A few simple occasions and a life begins to take shape.
After a while a database is just a database. What most interests me about genealogy are the answers to questions such as ‘who were these people?’ and ‘what kind of lives did they lead?’ Uncovering the daily lives of people through genealogy can be a difficult proposition. Most people were not notable. So how do we go about understanding them and their times? How do we put their lifetimes in context?
I have recently been exploring these questions in two ways: through my own French-Canadian culture as it has survived in my family and throughout historical New France, and through reading scholarly works that look closely at various aspects of French Canadian history both in a general way (such as the histories by Eccles and Moogk) or in more specific ways (such as Carolyn Podruchny’s Making the Voyageur World.)
With regard to this latter approach, reading scholarly works gives me the background to more fully appreciate the world in which many of my ancestors lived. I’ve learned about the challenges they faced and the cultures they gave birth to. In just a few volumes, this self-directed reading project has taken me a long way from the idea that ‘all French Canadians were voyageurs or lumberjacks’ to a picture of a culture rich in folktales, travel, encounters with other peoples, work, and tradition. Reading history confirms for me why French Canadian culture has not simply assimilated away.
With regard to exploring genealogy through my own culture, I have rediscovered how much you can learn through conversations with friends, strangers, and relatives. Of course, often what happens is I usually end such conversations or finish reading something and I have a whole new set of questions that begins anew the cycle of research and learning.
One recent conversation with an acquaintance I met via the FCHSM Facebook page helped me to begin looking at genealogy in ways that take into account the complexity of the past, including uncovering identities that aren’t always as straight-forward as we might assume. An interest in oral traditions led me to pair up with my sister to start a family history project to collect memories of family traditions and events from our own generation. A conversation with my cousin Dolly reminded me that genealogists can often get stuck in the past – but life is not all about the ‘old days’ and memories. Life and culture is about having relationships now, not just remembering them.
When I think of the many years I have spent doing genealogy, I often come up with the same image from when I began – of a little boy who was curious about ‘who we were.’ In every culture, whether it is one with many rituals and overt expressions of ‘who they are’ or one that is less overt, each generation is responsible for passing on their cultural legacy to the next. More than just seeking names and dates, that is ultimately why I continue to be interested in genealogy.
French Canadian and Métis cultures, in their stories, traditions, music, food, and beliefs are legacies passed down from generation to generation. And while they may not always be on the radar of broader society, that does not mean they are not important, especially to those of us who claim them. And in the main, there is only one way that future generations will be able to conceive of them beyond a vague sense of ‘something that once was.’ It is up to us. If we don’t tell our own stories, who will know them? If we don’t dance to the tune of our own fiddles, who will?