Sunday, October 9, 2016

Learning about the Past

Many of you know I trained as a classicist, studying ancient history and fleshing it out with Medieval and Renaissance periods through to the Early Modern Period (1500-1700s). And I'll admit I had absolutely no interest in history from about 500 (CE) to the present until about 30 years ago. All that changed when I moved to South Dakota in the mid-1980s and began to learn a little about the early settlers and their relations with the Indians. And I was curious about explorers and settlers who traveled through the land and interacted with the indigenous peoples.

This began a new interest, studying early American History. I found I was still interested in the older materials, the older times, but I began dabbling in more "modern" history.

When I began to do, and then teach, genealogy and local history, I realized I needed to know a lot more about early America and later America. Who came here? Where did they come from? What was the country like? I started with histories of Ohio, where I was living, delving into Allan Eckert's The Frontiersman and Conrad Richter's The Trees, The Fields, and The TownAs I learned more about Ohio history, I learned more American History.

Because I missed my hometown and it was full of 400 years of history, I began to explore histories of New York, particularly Long Island, where I grew up. As I traveled to different cities and state, I purchased books about the towns, the states, and their settlement. I also purchased historical fiction because it's much more fun to read than academic history. I delved into murder mysteries set in various towns and cities I visited. What fun.

Suddenly, I realized I knew a lot of American History, much of it the political 'from the top' history and a little of the people "history from below."

Embarking on a PhD in Public History, I specialized in 19th century American History. To qualify for my degree, I read a huge swath of US History from 1776 through the early 1910s. This built my solid understanding of what makes America tick.

So why write about this at all? Well, to do genealogy and local history, you have to read and explore. You need to read about the time period, the records, the people, and the events. You cannot study your family, any family, or event, town, community, or even building and business without understanding what that time period was like, who ran the town, and what events, large and small, affected individuals there.

Go out, read, and explore the world around you. Make history come alive!

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