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Why am I? Who am I here? Genealogy in a modern world.

Horse racing is sometimes referred to as the Sport of Kings, presumably because every thoroughbred can be traced back to one of three horses who were brought back to Europe from the Middle East more than 300 years ago; any good royal is thoroughly obsessed with tracing their royal lineage through genealogy, so the practice of breeding and racing horses emulated the practice of stickhandling heirs and heiresses through the royal bloodlines of Europe. While the rest of us might chafe at the reins to be compared to horses, this is essentially what genealogy is: answering humanity’s two deepest questions (Who am I? Why am I here?) through the exercise of untangling our roots through literal bloodlines.

north_american_horses

I live in Toronto, a truly international and futuristic city, where more than half of our residents don’t consider English to be their mother tongue. Many of my friends are raising kids who aren’t predominantly one race or another but a mixture of many, and in many ways this new generation of Heinz 57’s will have more questions about where they came from than our parent’s generation did. Due to their direct experiences living in a culture that’s actively and enthusiastically mixing more bloodlines than metaphors, these future genealogists will also place less emphasis on the answers, because in their experience one’s genealogy is an interesting bit of trivia but no more relevant than somebody’s blood type, favorite food, or zodiac sign. We are the envy of the world. Cultures are fused and refused and we’re learning from the experience of living here that the further we get from the old days of blood feuds over bloodlines the better off we are. With the advent of computerized census records, the proliferation of genealogy websites and online databases, and with the safety barrier that comes with the passage of time between our era and earlier eras that were more fixated on race and creed, tracing one’s family tree has become a fascinating exercise, and learning to use records that for hundreds of years had been locked away in dusty archives is a healthy way to establish a personal connection to history and to learn to use records for other, more constructive, purposes.

This cuts both ways: on one hand providing a demonstrable link to the past helps begin to answer those two burning questions, but it also closes us off from the experiences of others because it makes our lineage exclusive. It connects us by context, but keeps us separated from each other by the geometric direct lines of ancestry. On the other hand, we soon learn that knowing the whereabouts of our great great grandparent doesn’t change our place in the world today, doesn’t really tell us who we are, and while it might illustrate how we got here, it doesn’t explain why we’re here, and the experience of learning how knowledge of our ancestors doesn’t really change who we are opens us up to sharing new experiences with new bloodlines.

Dundurn has a number of interesting titles published in conjunction with the Ontario Genealogical Society, and are available on our website.

http://www.dundurn.com/books/imperial_immigrants
http://www.dundurn.com/genealogy_and_law_canada
http://www.dundurn.com/books/genealogical_standards_evidence
http://www.dundurn.com/books/crime_and_punishment_upper_canada

About the author

Duncan MacDonell is Data Asset Administrator at Dundurn.

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