Genealogy involves studying one’s own family history, which includes the dates of birth and death, marriage(s), occupation(s), etc. People who have an interest in genealogy tend to also have a major interest in history. There is a reason for this. Historical knowledge is vital to improving your knowledge of your family history. Having context regarding historical events that were taking place during your ancestor’s lifetimes can help genealogists understand what their ancestors may have witnessed or experienced during their life. I talked about this previously in my last post regarding Irish ancestry. Feel free to look at that for an in-depth perspective on Irish history. Like a lot of people, my family tree has branches across the globe, most notably in Argentina. (If you want an in-depth story on that, I’ve written a post on that too). However, if you have little to no cultural or historical knowledge regarding these nations, you may have a hard time understanding the lives of your relatives. I’m writing this blog post to help you on your journey of understanding the connections between history and genealogy. I’ll also be learning as I write this, so it’s a fun experience for us all!
This might seem painfully obvious but before you start learning your history you need to learn important dates. These dates are different for everyone. The single most important dates any one person needs to know is the dates of birth and death of their relatives. This can help determine the time periods that they might have lived through during their life. I’m going to provide a common example that Ancestry.co.uk provides for Irish ancestors via the LifeStory feature. My great-grandfather, Patrick Clarke, was born in early 1885 and died in early 1944. He was living in the Drogheda area in Co. Louth, Ireland in 1901, “as a reform movement gained traction and improved the lives of the country’s farmers.”
This is connected to the Land Acts of Ireland that became law from 1870 with the passing of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1870. The Irish Land Acts were crucial to the lives of the Irish. Further research into the Land Acts of Ireland will tell me more about life for the typical Irishman during the late 19th and early 20th centuries under British occupation.
Learning and understanding the connections between important events and the dates in which they took place is vital to both the study of history and the study of genealogy. I’m certain your history textbook from your school-days contains plenty of ‘key dates.’ To give you a helping start, I’ll list a few ‘key dates’ from history around the world and how you can use these key dates to learn more about your ancestors or other members of your family tree. Obviously; there are loads of key dates in ancient history, however, I will not include dates any earlier than 1517, for it is uncommon to trace beyond that year with a valid paper trail.
- 1517: Martin Luther publishes the 95 Theses, a document consisting of 95 grievances with the Catholic Church, kicking off the Protestant Reformation in Europe
- 1607: Jamestown, the first major British town in the 13 colonies; is established
- 1619: 20 African slaves brought to Jamestown, Virginia, for the first time
- 1632: construction of the Taj Mahal in India commenced under the rule of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan
- 1663: first steam pump invented by Edward Somerset
- 1683: Ottoman Empire is defeated at the Battle of Vienna by the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, halting Ottoman expansion into Europe
- 1733: Industrial Revolution gets in full-swing as John Kay invents the flying shuttle, a textile tool
- 1776: the 13 Colonies in the Americas establish the Declaration of Independence, formally declaring independence from the British Empire
- 1789: the Bastille is stormed by Parisian revolutionaries, kicking off the French Revolution
- 1796: Edward Jenner created the first vaccine for smallpox using the cowpox virus
- 1799: Napoleon Bonaparte assumes powers over France as he is named First Consul, kicking off the Napoleonic Wars
- 1804: the nation of Haiti is established after the French colony fought a successful revolution under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture
- 1819: Simon Bolivar defeats the Spanish at the Battle of of Boyaca, leading to the establishment of New Granada, a nation consisting of the modern-day countries Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela
- 1865: slavery is abolished in the United States by the 13th Amendment under the leadership of President Abraham Lincoln during a brutal civil war
- 1867: Shogun Rule in Japan ends as Tokugawa Yoshinobu abdicates to Emperor Meiji
- 1903: Australia becomes the first sovereign state to grant women the right to vote
- 1911: Qing Dynasty in China overthrown by Xinhai Revolution
- 1914: Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is assassinated in Sarajevo, kicking off the First World War
- 1918: an influenza epidemic kills 20 million people
- 1919: the Treaty of Versailles is signed by leaders of the Entente, ending WW1 and imposing harsh terms on Germany
- 1922: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) is established
- 1933: Adolf Hitler is appointed Chancellor of Germany
- 1939: Hitler’s Germany invades Poland, triggering the Second World War
- 1945: Germany surrenders as Hitler commits suicide, Japan suffers two atomic bombs from the US
- 1947: India obtains independence from the British Empire
- 1949: Chinese Civil War ends with Mao Tse Tung of the Communist Party declaring victory
- 1955: the Montgomery Bus Boycott kicks off, marking the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement in the US
- 1961: the Berlin Wall is built, dividing East and West Berlin
- 1963: President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas
- 1964: US Congress authorizes interference in Vietnam after passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, commencing the very controversial Vietnam (American) War
- 1990: Germany is reunified
- 1991: USSR dissolves
- 1994: Nelson Mandela elected President of South Africa in the nation’s first multiracial election
Well that was way more than ‘a few’ key dates, and this is after shortening it down. The length of this list goes to show the pure importance of understanding dates in history. Knowing what happened on these dates can tell you a lot about what happened while your ancestors were alive, what they may have witnessed or even been a part of. This list is far from exhaustive, there are plenty of important historical events that are not included here, but they are equally as important. Now, onto the next chapter of history and genealogy; locations.
The world map has been changing since maps were first created. The idea of sovereignty is closely tied to the idea of definite borders between countries. The oldest sovereign state in the world is the Republic of San Marino, a small land-locked nation completely surrounded by Italy. The San Marinese Republic dates back to 1600, when its constitution was formed, making it the oldest active constitution in the world. However, this definition of ‘age’ only relies on when the constitution was first enacted. If we go by how long a country has existed without any form of formal recognition, then Egypt and Japan would be some of the oldest countries in the world, for their empires lasted thousands of years before they achieved sovereignty.
The world is a geopolitical cesspool of chaos. Borders are changing constantly, meaning maps and country names become outdated very quickly. Every map of the world created before 2011 is now out of date as South Sudan became an independent nation. Maps of the world prior to 2018 could also be considered out of date as the small African nation of Swaziland changed its name to Eswatini to reflect the language of the population. Some countries, such as the Holy Roman Empire or Czechoslovakia, no longer exist due to the course of history.
Now, what does all of this have to do with genealogy? Why, it has everything to do with genealogy. Allow me to provide an example with an entirely made up individual.
Let’s say we’re researching the Durchdenwald family based in modern-day Germany. We manage to trace the bloodline to a man by the name of Hermann Durchdenwald. We have no date of birth or date of death for him, but we know he was born in the Holy Roman Empire and died in the Confederation of the Rhine. Using your historical knowledge (or… the Internet), you know that the Holy Roman Empire lasted from approximately 800 CE to 1806. The Confederation of the Rhine was founded in 1806 and was dissolved in 1817. Using this information, you can work out an approximate date of birth and date of death for Mr. Durchdenwald. It will not be 100% accurate until you find a record displaying the dates, but a rough estimate is better than not knowing at all.
It can be very difficult to research ancestors that lived in countries that were constantly changing, as every country has a different (or non-existent) way of keeping records. The records from some countries may contain a lot of information, while the records from others may barely contain a name. The fact that there isn’t some ‘universal record-keeping method’ that was in place throughout history can enrage a lot of genealogists, especially amateur ones such as myself who have been thrown into the deep end.
Of course, loads of countries have fallen to the discourse of history throughout the years, and to help you out, I’m going to create a small (I promise) list of a few countries that are no longer with us, as well as their dates of life, to hopefully provide you with some insight into when your ancestors were alive.
- The Holy Roman Empire (c. 800 – 1806)
- Czechoslovakia (1918 – 1993)
- Confederation of the Rhine (1806 – 1817)
- Gran Colombia (1819 – 1831)
- Republic of Texas (1836 – 1846)
- Tuvan People’s Republic (1921 – 1944)
- Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (1922 – 1991)
- Ceylon (1505 – 1972)
- Yugoslavia (1918 – 1992)
See, that was much shorter wasn’t it? Of course, this list is not exhaustive, for history has no limits. I highly encourage you to research extinct nations that your ancestors may have lived in, you might learn a lot about the lives of your relatives. Knowing what country your ancestors lived in can tell you plenty about the life they may have lived. You will learn if your ancestors lived a free life, a wealthy life, an impoverished life, a life of pain or a life of joy. I’m going to use an example by once again creating an entirely fictional character and family.
Imagine you’re researching the Saar family, based in modern-day Estonia, which was a Soviet Socialist Republic under the leadership of the USSR. Your great-grandfather, Rasmus Saar, was born in the Republic of Estonia in 1927 and died in the Estonia Soviet Socialist Republic in 1973. Since the ESSR was founded in 1940, Mr. Saar would’ve spent the majority of his adult life under an oppressive totalitarian regime. Saar likely lived in poverty and would’ve been unable to speak his thoughts if they compromised the government in power.
Your historical knowledge of the countries your ancestors lived in will tell you everything you need to know about their ordinary lives. Some of your relatives may have been extraordinary, however, and that is where the final chapter of this post comes in.
Historically Notable Surnames
If you’re like most people, you studied history in school for at least a couple of years. What’s one thing you learn frequently while studying history? The names of people important to the topic you’re studying. In my school they refer to them as ‘Key Personalities’ as I’m sure they do in many other schools. These are the people who contributed to the course of history in a major way and will be remembered by so many people. So I wouldn’t blame you for looking at the surnames of some of these people and thinking, “could we be related?” Being related to a person in your history textbook has a surreal feeling attached to it. It gets even more astonishing when you learn that it’s a lot more likely than you might think.
Technically, we’re all related in one way or another (you can thank royal inbreeding for that). But I’m not here to tell you ‘we’re all related to each other’ and then leave. That’s the boring answer. I’m going to show you how you could actually be closely related to someone who has made a major impact on history and who might just be in your school textbook. It’s all in the surname. Surnames are a way of displaying one’s origin, such as who one’s parents are, where one is from, etc. For example, the surname Roosevelt comes from the Netherlands in the 17th century. The Roosevelt Family have played a major role in American politics on both sides of the political spectrum, with Theodore Roosevelt serving as President from the Republican Party and Franklin D. Roosevelt as President from the Democratic Party. The two larger-than-life figures are distanced from each other on the timeline of history. Theodore was President from 1901 to 1909, whereas Franklin served from 1933 until his death in 1945. However, FDR and TR were 5th cousins, meaning they were on the same family tree. FDR and his wife Eleanor were 5th cousins once removed, for she was the niece of TR.
This is a very famous example of two people with identical surnames being related, but it is a valid example nonetheless. As you’re creating your family tree, you will discover countless surnames that are related to you. Research every surname you see, find out everything you can about people with the surnames on your family tree, and trace every record of your tree containing that surname, and you just might find someone with their own Wikipedia article. Don’t believe me? I’ll give you a personal anecdote. The Curran Family play a small but important role in my family tree, a few generations on my paternal grandmother’s side. I researched everything I could about the Curran family, and found that a man by the name of Constantine Curran was my first cousin three times removed. Curran (1883 – 1972) grew up with famous Dublin author James Joyce. They graduated from University College Dublin together and a famous photo of a young Joyce in Dublin was taken by Curran himself. There are plenty of examples just like this for everybody, you just need to know where to look. Your knowledge of history will really help you with recognising surnames of notable historical figures. Of course, just because someone has articles about them online doesn’t mean they are more important than those who don’t. Every member of every family is equally important. Understanding the historical contributions a member of your family made will help you learn more about the history of your family and it will help you understand what the lives of other family members at the time could’ve been like.
I do hope that you enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. This has been a big project for me that I’ve been working on for a while, so I hope you can forgive the large hiatus between my St. Patrick’s Day post and this new post. I hope to continue to be an active member of The Hidden Branch. I wish for my posts to have a moral, and this one is no exception. History is more important than you may realise. History defines us. Our story will be written into the cosmos as a small part of a long chapter of an even longer book. However small that part may be, it is vital to the procession of the plot of the story. Understanding history is the key to understanding life. When we know history, we can dictate the future. If we fail to learn history, we will be condemned to repeat it.