“I am a historian of my own history…I believe that when you know who you are, you have the ability to move forward not only with your own strength but with the strength of your entire ancestry.” -Oprah Winfrey
In the near future, America will be celebrating Memorial Day, which was originally called Decoration Day. This day was set aside to remember and honor those Americans who have served in the Armed Forces and sacrificed for our country. It is also a day during which many Americans have traditionally decorated the graves of their loved ones and thus honored the memories and family connections to the past.
But what if you do not know who your ancestors are? What if you don’t have any idea whether or not any family members served in the military? How can you honor their service and memories if you do not have the answers? True. You could (and should) participate in honor ceremonies and celebrations designed to recognize ALL Veterans. But what about the personal connection to yourself and your family? Did you know that discovering your ancestors can actually strengthen your feelings of self-acceptance and pride?
Fortunately, answers can be found to questions about who your ancestors are and how they lived their lives–including their military service. Websites such as ancestry.com can fill in most of the gaps to get you started on a journey of discovery and connection. These websites have access to databases of all types. With a little patience and tenacity, answers can be located for those questions that are specific to you and your family.
Several years ago, I started my own journey for answers via ancestry.com. I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of information available from the site. I not only discovered names and dates of my long-lost ancestors, but I also discovered details about where and how they lived. These details included information about an ancestor who was the first military casualty from Pike County, Illinois, during World War I! Another family member had even written a book about our family including events that led up to his enlistment. Each piece of information led to another. And before I knew it, I was able to meet a great Aunt and half Uncle who had been ‘lost’ to our family. Wouldn’t you know it? Both of these relatives have been affected by service in the United States military. My Uncle had served in the Marines during the Vietnam War and my Aunt’s husband had served in the Air Force. I also discovered that my paternal Grandfather served in the Navy during World War II. Answers and connections I never would have had if I hadn’t started searching. Answers that I can share with my living family members and save for future generations.
Military answers are not the only discoveries that can be found with a genealogical search. Death certificates (and sometimes obituaries) can provide invaluable details about health conditions that may be hereditary. Birth certificates can provide details about the ages of parents and sometimes even the occupation of each parent at the time of the birth. In my case, the birth certificate of my father revealed a difference in the spelling of his middle name from his father’s–even though he was a Junior! Clerical error or not? We will never know. And you may be asking yourself, ‘why does this matter?’ It matters because this middle name and the presumed spelling has been handed down to future generations from my ancestors. A current connection to the past.
Pictures can also be located and passed on. Have you ever wondered what your great, great Grandfather looked like? Or have you ever wondered who you inherited a specific facial or body feature from? On websites like ancestry, you just might find out the answer. On ancestry, members can access other members’ family tree information which occasionally includes photographs. Discovering the family connection to a trait that has been bothersome or even ridiculed by others can frequently result in acceptance and healing. Talk about a priceless connection!
Federal census records can also be a wealth of information for seekers. Presently, most of us have a difficult time understanding why we have to fill out the census reports for the government. The documents may seem like a nuisance, but they assist the current government officials with tasks such as allocating funds and they actually may provide answers about you for future family members! In fact, census records have provided me with much more information than I had anticipated. Information such as the place of birth of my great, great Grandmother led me to the discovery that some of my relatives had lived in Missouri. This is a state that my husband was also born in and a state that I love. The information contained in census records varies from year to year and sometimes the handwriting of the workers can be difficult to read. But these records can be downloaded and printed or magnified for clarification.
I have only touched the surface of the information that can be obtained from genealogical databases on-line. Valuable information can also be obtained from local courthouses, libraries, newspapers and even cemeteries. It doesn’t matter where the answers come from. The important thing is to just start. Your connection to your past and the strength of your entire ancestry is waiting.
Happy Memorial Day everyone!
(P.S. Thanks, Cassie for the above quote by Oprah. You do know your Aunt Penny well 🙂