Creating The Future of The Past
“What a long strange trip it’s been”, as the lyrics from one song describe. I have just returned from such a trip, without having physically gone anywhere. My travels have been through time, deep into our nation’s past. The trip has been almost total immersion for the last two years. I had no idea I was going there, it just happened. It started innocently enough, and by accident.
In the autumn of 1994 my wife Kristine and I moved to the Delaware Beaches and began shopping for real estate. We were captivated by a sad, lonely, and dispirited Victorian with a basically forgotten and mysterious past. Scanning a 1906 photograph into our computer, it was possible to zoom in with amazing clarity to masterful details of her at her very best. Envisioning the time when she would have clearly been the Grand Dame of the area, we had to know more about when she was built, who built her, who owned her, and how time had progressed around her.
Information about when the mansion was built and her early history was basically non-existent at the county level. However, there was deed information that told us the surnames of two families who owned the real estate for almost the entire nineteenth century. We wanted to read about these families, both of which, we finally discovered, were very prominent and played important roles in the early development of the region.
We went to the local library and were directed to their locked “Delaware Collection” bookcases and told if there was any information about those two families, it was probably there, somewhere. We were dumbfounded. Many of those old books didn’t even have indexes, and of the books that did, many seemed to have only indexed the key individuals. We began reading and skimming, and after going through the same process at other local libraries, came to realize three things.
First, there was a tremendous wealth of valuable family history knowledge buried in these old books. Second, that knowledge was scattered about in many different books in different locations, and it was in disconnected bits and pieces. And third, the only way to find specific information was to invest many long hours, and hope you get lucky.
We steadily amassed information about those two families, as well as families they were descended from, and families they married into. At about the same time that our accumulation of handwritten notes began to get almost hopelessly out of control, I came across a glowing product review for a software program to organize one’s family history. It was immediately ordered.
Within ten minutes after Family Tree Maker’s arrival at our door, I was feeding all of the names, dates, places, and facts that we had assembled into my computer. I couldn’t stop. It was like magic. That large ragged confusing pile of disconnected notes and scribblings was disappearing, and in its place appeared order and knowledge.
This was the epitome of simplicity, effectiveness, and logic of a filing system. And it was basically limitless. Roots and branches were free to spread in whatever direction and however far the data led. And spread they did. Across oceans, across continents, and across centuries.
All of these scattered fragments of information about the lives of lost ancestors, clues that had been buried and hidden in dead trees (paper) for generations, were coming together in a way that was never possible before. They were coming to life. They were telling stories that hadn’t been told in a very long time. They were opening windows to the past that had been barred and boarded shut, up until now.
The more data that was feed in, the clearer and more plentiful the views became. The knowledge was becoming dynamic. In seconds it could combine in unimaginable ways. It was a rich colorful tapestry being rewoven thread by thread. It was an old masters painting reemerging stroke by stroke from under layers and years of obscurity.
It was also very much like a large jigsaw puzzle being rebuilt piece by piece. It quickly became obvious that in the actually unfolding of history, just as in this growing database, there was only one specific piece for each spot, and only one specific spot for each piece.
That didn’t mean it was easy to fill particular spots, or to place particular pieces. There were three major obstacles. First, there was no completed picture to serve as a guide, as one gets on the front of a jigsaw puzzle box. Second, many of the pieces were lost and would possibly never be found.
And third, a large number of the actual pieces that could be found were initially missing 80-90% of the picture. However, the small part of the picture that remained gave enough of a clue to place, or at least tentatively place, that piece where it most likely belonged. The program masterfully kept these valuable clues in memory until more of the picture was located. And the full picture on a particular piece oftentimes was completely restored, over time, after the combining of bits and pieces of the picture from five or more sources.
It became an obsession. I was converting static and disconnected information into dynamic and connected knowledge. It felt good. My efforts would let many people find large chunks of their family history in seconds, instead of the months it could easily take if they had to start from scratch. More importantly, it would let them see views about the past that simply were not seeable before.
Some of those views were actually views of questions. One of the first and most basic was “What exactly is a family tree?”. The roots and branches from so many trees in this database were, as in real life over the course of human history, so connected and interwoven that it was simply not possible to tell where one stopped and another started. With all of the many ancestral and family connections and relationships, the only way to show a “family tree” on a piece of paper is to saw off many roots and branches at some point.
If a “family tree” is what it is because of the limitations and difficulty of displaying large amounts of information together on paper, if a “family tree” is a surgically removed part of a much larger whole, if a “family tree” gives an incomplete picture and only tells part of the story, and now computers do not suffer from the same limitation, why are we still holding back our knowledge and understand of our past by hanging on to the limiting and outdated paper-age paradigm of a “family tree”?
In answering these questions, it became obvious that the logically step was to move beyond thinking in terms of just a “family tree” and start thinking in terms of Family Forests. Family Forests were the natural settings where family trees actually grew. They give a much richer and better picture of what happened, and they also allow an explorer to follow his or her curiosity in any direction by following roots and branches in any direction.
A major eye-opener for me was realizing how many ancestors each of may have had. For instance, looking back eight generations (to about the time the United States was officially born), each of us could have had 256 different 6th-great-grandparents. Wow! That’s a big group of people, and each of them would have been called grandmother or grandfather, preceded by a number of greats. (one’s ancestors were all parents of parents; no aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, or sisters)
Regardless of whether or not their names are known, each and everyone of them was a real person who actually existed, and each one of them (regardless of their last name) was equally important and indispensable for us being here today.
I wanted to know who those people were, where they lived their lives, and how they lived their lives. Thinking about it a little more, I realized I wanted to know about the history of these people, and this led to an important observation. Almost always, history and genealogy seem to be treated at two separate and independent subjects.
Why is this? Didn’t people create history? To really understand historical events, isn’t it usually very important to know who the key individuals were, and oftentimes to know how those people were related to the other people who were involved?
The only answer to why history and genealogy seem to be treated as two separate and independent subjects seems to be, once again, because of the limitations and difficulty of displaying large amounts of information together on paper. This leads to a question similar to the family tree question: since computers do not suffer from the same limitations as paper, why are we still holding back our knowledge and understand of our past by keeping these two integral subjects separated?
The bigger our first Family Forest grew, the more obvious it became that Family Forests can be the catalyst that will fuse history and genealogy together where they belong. They allow and encourage “a people-centered approach to history”, instead of being limited to an events-centered approach to history. And they do it without sacrificing events-centered history. A key word, like Ticonderoga, can be entered in the search tool and every person who has the word Ticonderoga anywhere in their notes will appear.
What could be better for exploring one’s curiosity? Information that is not wanted stays out of sight until it is asked for, and then it is summoned in seconds when wanted.