Monday, 14 August 2017

Family History in the making…and seen Live!

In our concentration with the past, family historians often forget how history is being made today. This highly technological world allows us to experience events as they happen many of which affect our own families.

We had the great pleasure of seeing our granddaughter dance at a prestigious ballet competition in Hong Kong this past week – LIVE! This was the Asian Grand Prix where over 300 young people came together from all over the world to show their excellence in ballet.


Not only could we watch them all dance we got to experience the joy of our granddaughter when she was awarded the Bronze Medal in her age category of 13 to 14 year-olds.

This is the age of Facebook, live streaming, Skype and WeChat, terms completely unknown to our parents (and barely understandable by many people my age). From the comfort of our living room in Calgary, Canada we saw the dance performances in Hong Kong, over 6,500 miles away and 14 hours ahead, in Real Time! We got to see and share this piece of family history happen with many other family members, in their own homes, at the same time.

Our parents, who raised their families when home television was developing, would have appreciated seeing such an event as it was happening. They understood live broadcasts even in the 1950s. I remember watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, transmitted via undersea cables. That was a day that changed television history itself. Since that time we have witnessed thousands of similar major historical events unfold as they occurred in all parts of the globe.

I remember when my parents were able to come out to my schools and other venues when I received awards and other certificates of recognition, as well as when I performed in various concerts. These were important times of sharing experiences. My grandparents could never make it because they lived so far away. Copies of what photos that might have been taken were mailed to them instead along with those old fashioned letters people used to write.

We are way past letters, even telephones. Messages are transmitted instantly via electronic means (with all their spelling, grammar, punctuation and construction errors and often without thought given to how the words might be received).

It does give one pause to think how such immediate communication might be viewed by ancestors from several generations back. There were times when news from one family member to another might take weeks to travel from place to place – months if they lived across an ocean from each other. The telegraph allowed short notes to be sent between localities that could then be delivered by hand to recipients. It was slow, expensive and did not allow the exchange of much news.

The late 19th century saw telephone usage expand around the globe although many families could not avail themselves of the technology, again because of cost and infrastructure. Eventually phones were everywhere which must have affected letter-writing activities.

Today we have “smart phones” – instruments capable of exchanging voices, written communications, images, videos and all manner of other data. We are able to visit with family and experience their joy and achievement no matter where they are in the world. Our gadgets can do complex calculations as well as entertain us with the latest movies. I am quite sure my 6th great-grandparents, living in the 18th century, would never have been able to even comprehend the idea.

These modern tools allow us to search historical records quickly and easily as we follow our genealogical research leads. Just as importantly they let us see for ourselves what our children and grandchildren are doing and saying. And they get to share important moments in their lives with some of their ancestors (us) like no generation has ever been able to do.

So for us to be able to live stream a dance competition – even though it was at 2:00 in the morning – was very exciting. We got to see family history being made live.



Wouldn’t it be neat if we could look back a few centuries and see in a similar fashion how our ancestors’ lives were unfolding and share in their moments of achievement?

Monday, 7 August 2017

Our Common Immigrant Origins

We all descend from immigrants!

That’s not really an astounding or radical viewpoint. Humans have migrated to areas where they could find better conditions to live and survive since there were humans. Whatever we might think in North America, everyone here descends from someone who moved here, whether during last year or in the last 15,000 years.

I am a second generation Canadian. My ancestors, not so far back, were immigrants. I am just starting to learn why they packed up and moved themselves and, in many cases, their entire families to North America.

Most of us don’t usually think of English-speaking people (or early French-speaking people in Canada) as immigrants but they were – every bit as much as more recent additions to our national mosaic of Asians, Africans or other Europeans. We reserve that distinction to those displaced by wars or Mother Nature. Some of them we have called them refugees.

When I was growing up, people coming to Canada were mainly from Eastern Europe, parts of which had been devastated by a long and dirty war. Many were fleeing despotic, primarily Communist regimes set up following the conflict and that inflicted even more calamity. The migrants sought safety, opportunity and freedom.

Recent arrivals to Canada and the US in the 1950s were often given unflattering labels, first because they did not speak the common language of the regions they settled in, but also, I suspect, from locals’ fear about how their communities might change and whether jobs would be lost to those who might work for less. Or maybe just from plain bigotry.

What we refer to as aboriginal groups – or First Nations in Canada – did not actually originate in the Americas either. They migrated from Asia when conditions permitted during the last major Ice Age. That only makes their ancestors immigrants of a much earlier period, not different or better. In many parts of the New World, existing societies were demolished by invaders, largely from Europe, who came much later.

Of course present-day Europeans also descend from immigrants who came into the region from Southwest Asia and Africa a few hundred thousand years ago, as the climate and physical environment of those regions changed for the worse. East Asians also originated in Africa.


Within Europe there has also been a great deal of internal migration during the past few thousand years again, when degradation of habitat necessitated moves. The event called the Migration Period or the Barbarian Invasion occurred when climate changed from warm (Roman Climate Optimum) to cold (Dark Ages Cold Period).


Some newcomers made uneasy peace with groups that were inhabitants of the lands wanted for settlement; most, though, took the areas by force. That’s not unusual in terms of human history. There have always been conflicts between migrants and inhabitants going back thousands of years. Perhaps distrust of people coming later is ingrained in our DNA, as part of a survival mechanism. Or maybe it’s just that fear factor humans seem to have in abundance. Such attitudes are certainly part of many cultures around the world. These days, established citizens use the ruse that newly arrived groups will be a burden on social programs.

The facts are clear for North America in particular, though – incoming groups of people have always added to the culture, wealth and development of regions in which they have settled.


Family history studies, besides incorporating analyses of genetic relationships, are really the study of immigration – when did people move, why did they move, where did they go, what method of travel did they employ and how long did they stay. While this is more apropos for the Americas or Australia, even local regions in Europe share similar stories as people migrated within their country of origin to places where work was more plentiful and life might be better.


So – we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants. The only distinction between us in that regard is when our forebears arrived in the places where we live.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Stories from people I know

We don’t often think about the stories our contemporaries might share when we are looking at our genealogical research. But people my age have lived long enough to have heard about and possibly been around when important historical events happened, as well as those that touched their own families. Family history is not only about who was alive hundreds of years ago but also about who we have been in contact with during our own lifetimes.

How often have you seen or heard the phrase, “Where were you when….?”

You may remember details of things that are now reported as important historical events, such as the shooting of a US President, a war fought in some far off place in the world or the births of future Kings. Such events may have had some personal impact on a member of your family – or yourself. Perhaps you or someone close to you was in the wrong place when a major natural disaster occurred (see my previous blog posts about Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes). Maybe a special trip or birthday comes to mind because it happened at the same time as an important and newsworthy occasion.

I was reminded of this aspect when a friend asked if I had seen a piece he published recently in The Devon Family Historian (May 2017 issue). It was titled Memories: A Country Boy. Alick Lavers related his experience as a small boy of the bombing of Plymouth during the early years of the WWII and, in particular, when a German plane crashed in the countryside on 24 November 1941 not far from where he lived.


It is a poignant story, one that still lives vividly in his personal memories. I recommend reading the piece if you can (If you send me your email address in the comments section, I will forward you a copy. I won’t publish your email contact details.). His article serves as an example that we do not always need to look in books or newspapers for information about events and how they impacted people. Sometimes we can just ask our friends and relatives. Many of them are now of similar (advanced) age as ourselves.

I do confess that I have not written much about my own life and those people I came in contact with. To my descendants, my personal recollections and story will, of course,be part of their family history. Perhaps this blog post might be a start in that direction, if I can remember what happened decades ago. Good thing I have photos and many documents that go back through several generations.

When recording your family’s history, remember to contact friends and relatives to see what they remember about significant events within your and their living memory as well as what they may have been told by their parents.