Louise Wilson continues her musing on the journey of discovering family history. ***
The true essence of family history research is the journey – your own journey of self-discovery.
Let’s start with the genes you inherited. Most of us know less about our own genes than your average grazier knows about the genes of his cattle. You only have to watch one episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ for that fact to be obvious. How many of us know the backgrounds of our two sets of grandparents – just four people? By the time we get to our parents’ grandparents, we are lucky to know anything at all. We might know only one story about our family background, and that story then tends to dominate our thinking, as if it formed our entire identity. We forget all the other forebears who’ve contributed to who we are.
The ‘ah hah’ moments are therefore quite thrilling if we set out to discover the full mix of ingredients in our personal cake. It’s no surprise to find the usual collection of general labourers, agricultural labourers, Cornish miners and female servants lurking in your background. In my case, some were convicts on the First, Second and Third Fleets. But I was very surprised that my genes also came from gentlemen farmers, innkeepers, artists, musicians, teachers, doctors, soldiers, clergymen, merchants, slave-owning sugar planters, bankers, mail coach entrepreneurs and turpentine factory owners, plus a solitary butcher, printer, chemist, engineer and circus proprietor. No wonder I found it difficult to choose a career. I wish I’d known this, when young. Such knowledge is powerful, perhaps giving permission to break away from family expectations. That eclectic mix of genes might explain why I eventually turned into the first writer in my line of the family.
Each generation that we step back permits us to make broader-brush discoveries. I was amazed to realise just how Anglo-Celtic I am. Three hundred years of an almost fully-completed pedigree chart, detailing eight generations of my ancestors, revealed only one forbear who did not originate in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland. He came from close by – northern France. As I flinch from the skin specialist’s spray can of liquid nitrogen, I readily understand and accept that my fair skin was never meant for Australia, although my forbears here date back to 1788.
What other health record do we inherit? My grandmother, an unlikely feminist, loved to tell her granddaughters that we descend from a long line of strong, independent women. Fanciful? No, my research proved her right. In her father’s family, from 1790, successive fathers and sons died of illness aged 52, 45, 62, 37 and 43. Their widows, left to raise the children, all lived into their eighties.
Health issues of a different kind were the focus of the powerfully-told and very moving episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ where Susie Porter discovered recurring patterns of serious mental illness in her hitherto-unknown female forebears. Susie gained sudden insight into her own black moods and was never going to be the same person again.
Your family history research can change you and add great meaning to your life.
At the Genealogical Society of Victoria (GSV) we help members explore and write about their family history. This month’s author, Louise Wilson (www.louisewilson.com.au), belongs to the GSV Writers’ Discussion Circle. For more information about the GSV, see www.gsv.org.au, or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone (03) 9662 4455.