All too often when we do family history research, we end up being simply collectors of names and dates...I am also guilty of this. I think this is often because unless our ancestor was someone of prominence, all we often have are names and dates - birth, marriage and death if we're lucky. We can imagine the person our ancestor was when we have the stories in between - for instance, my great-great grandfather, Rudolph Stutzmann, was a prominent member of the Queens and Brooklyn German-American community, a businessman and a bank founder and president, so I have passport applications and passenger list manifests that help me imagine the traveling he did, and newspaper articles on his business dealings, philanthropic activity and involvement in fraternal organizations and singing societies that actually spell out for me actual moments in the life he lived. I have newspaper articles on family members' birthday parties, wedding receptions, injuries, illnesses and in the case of the infamous Ricklefs brothers, their prolific criminal activity. It's easy for me to picture who these people were, to make and feel that connection to them - but what about everyone else? Everyone on our trees lived a life - they cried, they worked, they felt pain, they loved. They were people in a place in a time.
Even if we don't know the details of the stories in between a person's birth and death, we can imagine them, and we should. Genealogy is so important in learning not only our own personal histories but HISTORY, and our families' place in it. If we try to picture our ancestor in a certain time and place, it can also provide possible answers to our questions, even if we don't have the documentaton - why did this person die so young? Was there a sickness in the locality? Were they poor and maybe underfed and underclothed? Could they have died in childbirth? Why did this person move around so much? What was their profession? What was the economic climate of the time and place they were living in? When they finally settled down, was it because there was a need in that place for the service they were providing? A person living in 1880s New York will not have had the same life experiences as someone living in 1880s California, and a person living in 1880s California will not have had the same life experiences as someone living in 1940s California.
I remember when my mom went back to college when I was a teenager, she was given an assignment for one of her classes - she was given a name of a fictional person, a date of birth, a date of death, and a locality. This is often all we have to go on in genealogy - her assignment? Write that person's life story. What that story was was totally up to her, but in order to create it, she had to do some research - based on that person's name and location, what might their original nationality have been? Based on that, why might they have ended up in the location they did? Based on where they lived, what might they have done for a living? What was going on in the world that might have contributed to this invididual's life? What might have been their family make up? Did they marry? Did they have kids? How many? I remember thinking this was such an interesting assignment - it was basically entirely up to you to figure out who this person might have been, but you had clues to guide you in who this person PROBABLY could've been. That's what we can do when we research our family trees - we might not have hard documentation to PROVE who these people were, but we can put our ancestors into the context of the larger world to figure out who they MIGHT have been. Because everybody is more than just a name, a place and a date. We are also the stories in between, and just as I try to remember theirs, I hope someone will try to remember mine.