I have been invited to give a brief presentation to a local service club on the why’s and wherefore’s of genealogy. The how-to stuff will be easy. What I have been pondering is the “why” of genealogy. I think I know why I am researching my family. I am nosy – I love gossip. Even gossip that is 100 years old, which is probably why I enjoy reading the society pages of the old newspapers. You wouldn’t believe the stuff they’ll tell you! I suppose I am also curious about how my family got here. What would cause people to pull up stakes and come to a country that was essentially a wilderness? When my ancestor came to Ontario, he had to clear the land on which he would settle. His experiences would have been very similar to those of the Catherine Parr-Traill and Susannah Moodie. And by their accounts it was not a lot of fun.
We can never know the “why” for sure. In genealogy, unless you are blessed to have generations worth of correspondence or diaries from your ancestors, the best we can do is guess. There are resources to turn to, however, to give us a better idea of what life was like for our ancestors and maybe even shine some light on their own reasons for doing what they did. I mentioned Catherine Parr Traill and Susannah Moodie. Their accounts of settling in Ontario, The Backwoods of Canada, Roughing it in the Bush and Life in the Clearings, paint a very colourful picture of what life was like in the backwoods of Ontario as their families struggled to establish themselves in a relatively inhospitable climate. While my ancestor’s experiences may have been a bit different (he certainly wouldn’t have been trying to maneuver through the brush in a full length dress, say – at least I think not) they would have been similar enough to give me an idea of what he had to face just to get started.
So, even if your ancestor didn’t leave boxes of correspondence or volumes of diaries, you can still extrapolate from what we have to give yourself an idea of what their motivations were and the hardships they faced. We have an excellent collection of first-hand accounts of life in early Alberta. You can find many of them by using the search term ‘pioneers’ in the catalogue. You can also try ‘correspondence’ (with the name of place) or ‘diaries’. A quick search turned up the following: The First Dutch Settlement in Alberta: Letters from the Pioneer Years; Wilderness Outpost: the Fort Vermilion Memoir of Mary B. Lawrence and Letters from Rupert’s Land . These are just a few of the first-hand accounts we have of the settling of Canada. We also have a good collection of explorers’ journals, which can give a very interesting view of the country at the point of first European contact.
All this research and reading really helps to flesh out the story of our ancestors. And really, for many of us, isn’t that what family history is all about?
New Settlers, Their First House, Western Canada
Postcards from the Past, PC 1649