Here is a photograph from the year 1890 I was given by my maternal grandmother when I was around 12 years old. It is an image of her father (at left) when he was five, and his father, who served as a Union soldier in the Civil War.
We always knew my great-grandfather as “Pop,” but you can see from this picture, taken at a GAR (Union veterans) reunion in Cleveland, Ohio, that he was named both for his father and his father’s general, William Tecumseh Sherman, with whom Michael Schneider had marched through the Atlanta Campaign of 1864.
My grandmother also passed on her grandfather’s Civil War campaign medals and ribbons, wrapped carefully in tissue paper and stored in a shoe box. In 1996 I had these mounted and framed and now they hang in my home. By that time, I had spent the good part of a decade compiling a family history scrapbook on both sides of my family.
History is more than a subject we have to take in school in order to graduate. It is the story of people – your people and mine. Making a personal connection with the past is important in bringing history alive. It also helps us understand ourselves and our place in the world. The more we know of where we come from, the more ably we can decide which traditions to continue and which to leave behind. To paraphrase John Quincy Adams, we must come to understand that who we are is fundamentally who we were.
If you are new to genealogy, there are some basic places to start. Start with your living relative(s) who know the most and have the largest collections of artifacts. Find out what countries your ancestors came from, and what parts of the United States they settled in. Birth, death, land and marriage records can be obtained online at the county level. Military records are housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The internet now has several excellent websites with which to begin your search.
The more you can discover, the more you will understand the historical events and contexts in which your ancestors lived, and the role they played in shaping the history of this great nation. America has always been the story of innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers, and every person who made the decision to come here has contributed something to that story. Discovering your people’s contributions is an exciting adventure that awaits you.
Below is a photo of me in 1995 at my paternal great-great-grandparents’ graves near Salem, Oregon. They fled famine and persecution in their native Ireland, sailed in disease-ridden ships to Canada, crossed the border at night into the United States, and settled in a poor immigrant neighborhood in Chicago around 1850. By 1874 they had bought 300 acres in Oregon and gone west to settle them. My grandfather was born there in 1900 and later became the first Finney to attend college.
Find your part in the story. It starts with discovering where you came from. Only then can you best decide where to go from here.
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