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The Three-Mile-Per-Hour World

By Daniel Hubbard | June 19, 2011

As I write this, I’ve just finished a twenty-mile bicycle ride with my daughter. There are many reasons for taking a long ride. It is time together. There is the mind-clearing relaxation, fresh air and exercise. Of those twenty miles, about 1 block in total was spent on streets. The rest was bike paths—a wooded bike path through town and then  a long trail along the river through nothing but forest preserve land as the trail connected one preserve after another.

For a genealogist, that word “preserve” ought to have a special resonance. A great deal of what we do is discovery but those discoveries are nearly pointless without preservation. Of course we also need to take advantage of what has been preserved. Not just the records, photographs, letters, diaries and aging books that we normally think about but the landscape, the buildings, even the place names. When I lived in Europe, one of the most sublime experiences I knew was to suddenly come across a ruin that was hundreds or thousands of years old. So old and yet often so unassuming that one could almost feel time. I will never forget driving through Wiltshire, the native county of some of my English ancestors. It is also the county of Stonehenge and the great stone rings at Avebury. What I wasn’t prepared for were the hills. It sometime seemed as if each was topped by a “barrow grave,” a neolithic tomb. Some of those burial mounds are over five thousand years old. Seeing them dotting the horizon, made me realize that even though it had been nearly four hundred years since my ancestors left that place, it was only a moment ago. Not only did it give me a different sense of time but I had to realize that this countryside with its ancient ruins was part of the world that my ancestors knew.

On this bike ride, just being away from traffic noise and surrounded by woodland and seeing a slow, muddy river wind its way among the fallen trees was enough to remind me of how the world looked to pioneer ancestors a few generations ago. I wondered how old every fading trace of habitation is. Something man-made sticking up out of the river bank here, a bit of stone foundation there. When there is no trace of habitation, I got to think that this is how it might have looked to a group of settlers when they arrived. We usually don’t notice it but in a very real sense, in America the distant past is not so distant. Put another way, the event that changed the landscape, the arrival of people from the Old World, wasn’t so very long ago. Where I am, it is less than two hundred years since even a trickle began.

Taking It Slow

On our bikes we didn’t just see the world of forests and winding streams that early settlers saw but we experienced the world at something close to the speed they did. It is said that until recently, people lived in a three-mile-per-hour world. People walked or traveled by cart. Even riding on horseback, speed cannot be very great over any distance. Three miles per hour or so, was what people could count on and you see things differently at that speed. One sees details that escape people moving faster. One also thinks differently with those limitations. A reasonable distance to travel or a reasonable place to go, have different meanings at three miles an hour along a muddy track through dense forest or dodging snags while floating down a shallow river. Understanding that helps in understanding who our ancestors were, how they lived and where they might be expected to turn up next.

There is another lesson to learn from out three-mile-per-hour forebears. Though zipping along  at breakneck speed from one record to another is a privilege of modern research, it is also a hazard. Travel through a record at “three miles per hour” and try to notice all the little interesting, helpful and curious details that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.

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Topics: Genealogy | 3 Comments »

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3 Responses to “The Three-Mile-Per-Hour World”

  1. Greta Koehl Says:
    June 19th, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Daniel. Now I am feeling better about the snail’s pace of my research.

  2. Laura Says:
    June 23rd, 2011 at 11:30 am

    Very interesting post. I could feel myself slowing down as I read it, experiencing a different pace. Nice reminder for all of us.

  3. Daniel Hubbard Says:
    June 23rd, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    Greta and Laura, Thanks for the comments. That taking some time can sometimes give quicker results must be one of the toughest paradoxes for a researcher to come to grips with. Sometimes we rush to the answer and sometimes we rush right past it and never see it. I think part of the joy of research is trying to get the balance right.

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