The Forgotten Americans

One of the  most frustrating obstacles of family research are civic records which established a community mythos of who was important based on how much they could pay to be included in a community history.  In the 1880's communities had become settled and prosperous and so marketing to their sense of civic pride was big business.  The pioneers were not as popular as the prosperous.  Since many pioneers were in many ways non-conformists who sought out new, empty, lands to get away from city life, it is often ironic how their descendants sometimes portrayed them.  

What is unfortunate it that sometimes these histories were incomplete, mistaken, and inaccurate.  It cannot always be said that people lied....but truth did have a habit of  bending on occasion.  Some books were written by skilled 'spin' artists who carefully described their 'subject' in the most flattering tones and words possible: 'he received only the education afforded him by the common schools of his day' can be translated he did not go to school much past the ability to read and write (anywhere from eight to ten years of age in some time periods).  Status conscience descendants more interested in fitting into a new rising middle class of the 1880's than historical accuracy were more than happy to pay for inclusion in these volumes.  The ability to craft your history was appealing and so what if grandfather was run off from Ohio for nearly killing a man, we can smooth that wrinkle over with a phrase such as " the grandfather of our subject was a pioneer who longed to leave the farms of his native Ohio and explore the western lands."

Sometimes, simple and common people, unable or unwilling to pay for their inclusion in such tomes had real stories to tell.  Men who launched out into wild, untamed areas, as soon as they were opened battling harsh elements, isolation, and the dangers of both.  They worked at carving out a tiny space of their own, lost wives and children, but kept on.  They never achieved much in wealth, land, or recognition.  They did,  however, make it possible for the descendants to be able to enjoy a community, achieve some social status, and leave them out of the communal histories they helped to create.

Family researchers can encourage the development of health self-esteem by discovering their ancestors, appreciating their struggles, and celebrating their achievements. We should avoid, however, the tendency to gloss over their faults, minimize their climb from the harsh depths of existence, or place too great an emphasis on material possessions.  Issues of social status, class, economic standing, or education often meant little to the people who carved out a life, established a family, and left their legacy in the DNA each of us carry around as a memento of all who have gone before us.

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