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When everyone is somebody, nobody is anybody

Well into the 20th century, many Canadian school children were taught a course in British history. I remember very well sitting in a grade three classroom. Above my desk on one wall hung a chart which depicted a thousand years of English and British monarchs. Most of the early portraits were not drawn from life, but offered a two-dimensional glimpse of rather irascible-looking bearded men. Below them came a series of pictures of later rulers. Some were idealized, others so odd-looking that even a 10-year-old could hope the poor souls hadn’t looked that grotesque. Ten months of subliminal observation decades ago and I can still announce unhesitatingly “Henry III, 1216-1272.”

Then we came to Canadian history and learned “the three causes” of this war or “the results” of that one. It was important to know that the important world event of 1697 was a certain treaty between Britain and France and their allies. Whatever the landscape involved, history was about wars and kings, treaties and explorers. These heroic figures led armies or had natives and Métis paddling them ever farther into North America’s interior, but those casts of dozens or thousands were usually nameless and barely mentioned, if at all.

Then, in the 1960s, our concept of history began to undergo change. Historians started to notice the little people of the past. Those millions of peasants and seafarers, ordinary folks and bit players, found voice in the pages of written record. Half a century later it is impossible for anyone younger than 40 to recall a time when history was the exclusive preserve of the proverbial “great and good”.

This matters considerably to genealogists. Many of us can trace a line of descent back to a passenger in the Mayflower or the Hector, a pioneer of Lunenburg or Trinity, Rustico or Gagetown. Some can find a line that eventually connects them to nobility or even royalty. It is somewhat a boost for the ego to be certain of ties to someone of note from ages ago, even if it doesn’t make us any more of a big shot than before we learned all that.

However, consider that we possess a host of ancestors who were not kings or admirals, generals or princesses. These were the largely nameless forebears who tugged their forelocks and dropped curtseys when the VIP rode past. Such humble folk are more difficult to trace the further back in time we delve. It is reasonable for most family historians to get back two or three centuries, but before 1750 the light on the trail often dims and the mists of time begin to take over.

This is where the shift of emphasis in the research and writing of professional and academic historians matters so much to the rest of us. We begin to see that, even if we can’t come up with an unbroken line of ascent, we are able to flesh out those shady lives because we can learn about which events were affecting populations of people in former times. All said and done, can’t you feel more affinity with a person whose type of home you can learn about, and what tools and utensils they used, than you can with Duke Childebert III, who must have existed because there were Childeberts II and IV about whom there is record?

Due to the growing number of people whose DNA has been classified, the connections within the human family will become more apparent. One of the discoveries becoming better established over the past few years is that most of us share common bloodlines well within the era of recorded history.  Genetic investigations are offering us another chain of linkage transcending generations and geography. When read side by side with the so-called paper trail, and viewed in light of more recent ways of studying and reporting history, the relative merits of being the “son of something,” or hidalgo, lose cachet by comparison. When everyone is somebody, nobody is anybody. Perhaps that old chestnut is turning out to be true. It just boils down to emphasis, even in Atlantic Canada, doesn’t it?

Dr. Terrence M. Punch is a Member of the Order of Canada. His latest book, Montbéliard Immigrants to Nova Scotia, 1749 - 1752, appeared in a revised edition and is available from www.genealogical.com

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