Making History Personal

Marys Soldiers
Mary Barker and unknown soldiers at the St. Augustine bayfront. From the author’s personal collection.

How I wish I could have asked Aunt Mary about the handsome Soldiers in this photograph . . .

We all regret the missed opportunities and unasked questions. Then, almost in the same breath, we complain about the lack of interest our young relatives have about their own history.

Why is it the younger generation’s responsibility to know what questions to ask – let alone ask them? Aren’t the older generations responsible for their children’s education? Family history should be a priority in that effort. By including family history, those extraordinary ordinary people who were our ancestors will make learning history a personal experience and encourage them to learn more.

My history books taught me that the Civil War battles at Franklin and Nashville, Tennessee, were the death knells for the Confederacy. At the time my main interest was passing the test. Then I learned that my great grandfather fought and was captured at Franklin, spent the rest of the war as a POW at Camp Douglas, Illinois, and then walked home to Georgia. Once I had a family connection to the war, I wanted to understand how it affected their lives. It then became personal.

Although my mother, aunts and grandmother made sure we kids knew this great grandfather fought in the war, it would have been easy to expand our knowledge and interest. We spent many summers on the family farm in Georgia just a few miles from the Chickamauga battlefield. My great grandfather’s unit fought there too. It would have been a great adventure to wander around the battlefield, discover the many monuments honoring his unit and learn about his unit’s actions during the battle. With a little more encouragement, we may have gone on to learn about the other battles and his capture.

My point here is that it is our responsibility to share our family history and make history personal for the generations following us.

How can we do this? Here are some ideas:

  • Visit battlefields, home towns and places where your ancestors lived. During a recent visit to the Chickamauga battlefield, a ranger looked up my great grandfather’s unit and then provided us with a map showing where each monument and marker for that unit was located. My husband and I spent a delightful afternoon tracking down those markers. It would have been even more fun if the grandkids had been with us.
  • We did have the grandkids with us on a day trip to Spaceport at Cape Canaveral. I told them about watching Apollo 11 launch from the beach in St. Augustine and their mother told them about coming to the Cape to watch a shuttle launch. Now the exhibits became even more real to them.
  • Do your kids like to read? Historical novels are even more fascinating when there’s a connection to an ancestor. The same is true for movies. All it takes is a little comment mentioning the connection to spark an interest.
  • Blog the stories your research discovers. My nephew never met his paternal grandparents so he enjoys the photos and stories I’ve posted about them.
  • Create photo/scrap books with lots of captions, ephemera and short stories. It’s quite easy and affordable these days to “publish” small, customized histories as gifts.
  • Develop research challenges/contests to encourage the kids to learn on their own.

It doesn’t have to be a momentous event to add a personal perspective. Something as simple as watching History Detectives and commenting on how you found one of your ancestors using similar research techniques could inspire them to discover how fascinating family history can be.

Got some suggestions to add to the list? You can share them in the comments. We’d love to hear them!

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