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The Big Stuff

By Daniel Hubbard | April 27, 2013

I love to find little connections between families and history. Often people are sure that there is no “history” in their family. I think it would be a strange family indeed that was never involved in any historical events. Never impacted in a way worth noting, no one who ever signed a petition on some vital issue, volunteered for an army, been caused to migrate by some events far bigger than themselves. Once one uses a little imagination and extends that list, then counts up just how many ancestors one has a few generations back, it becomes vanishingly unlikely that no little bit of history can be identified that touched an ancestor or that no big historical phenomenon opened some paths for them while it closed others.

Other times people seem to feel the pull of the thought of being descended from someone famous. They become sure it is true without ever proving it to be true. Genealogy gives way to fantasy. We can end up with two blind spots. One blinds us to the need of looking at history at all because our ancestors were certainly not important. The other says that obtaining any hint that an important person was an ancestor is the same as proving that it is so

Genealogy is about getting the nitty gritty right. It is also about integrating all those proven details with the history that sits just below the surface, sprouts up between a baptism register here and a will over there, and occasionally flows like a torrent right over the top of our research. If the genealogy doesn’t fit the history, something needs to be explained or revised.

Torrents

It is one of those torrents that brought me to this topic. If we restrict ourselves to just the nitty gritty, we miss the forest for the trees. Sometimes the “forest” is no more than a small but fascinating grove that we need to study and account for. We can often manage to see those if we think about it. What about the truly vast forests? Usually, we won’t find our families there. Often if we do it is because we are wrong. We are following Hansel and Gretel’s trail of breadcrumbs into a forest of fantasy. Sometimes though the forest really is that big. Sometimes we find our ancestors not just at the edge of the forest but right in the middle of it. That torrent of history isn’t always something that just sweeps our ancestors downstream.

This week I’ve been researching one member of a family in early New England. He was clearly important but not surprisingly so. I found his family in London records. The were baptized, married and died just like everyone else. Unlike everyone else, this man’s slightly older brother turned up in an interesting book from 1750 called Notitia parliamentaria, listing Members of Parliament. That was exciting. History became that rushing torrent in this case because that brother was a member of the so-called Short and Long Parliaments. After ruling without Parliament for eleven years, Charles I found it necessary to call Parliament into session in order to have them vote him more revenue. Instead, they aired a long and ever lengthening list of grievances and accusations of the abuse of royal power. After only three weeks, Charles chose to stem the tide by dissolving Parliament. Six months later the king was forced to call Parliament again. This time they made sure that there would be no repeat of the previous session and voted to not disband until they themselves agreed to disband. Within a year and a half, Royalist and Parliamentarian forces were fighting what would be a nine year struggle called English Civil War. During those nine years,

As a percentage of the population, it is still the bloodiest conflict in English history.

Sometimes our families really were part of a torrent of history. Sometimes they are even the ones found operating the floodgates.

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