Sunday, November 7, 2010

I Don't See Dead People but I Do See History

You know the popular phrase  "I see dead people"  said by Haley Joel Osment in the 1999 movie "The Sixth Sense".  I am happy to say that I don't see dead people, but I do see history - everywhere I go.

I particularly see history when I'm driving as there is nothing else for me to do but watch the road.  As I  drive I make note of the road.  Was it an old road or built more recently?  Would it be on an 1850 or a 1790 map?  Not sure - look at the houses.  Are the houses all new, all old or a smattering of both?  Is there a row of similar old houses or is there one old farm house in the midst of ranches and splits?

I look at trees too. How many large mature trees are standing alongside the road?  Could they have been there a hundred years ago or perhaps longer?  Is there only one large tree or is the street lined with old trees? I chastise myself for not knowing more about trees and their growth rates.  Some trees grow faster than others and I'm not sure how to tell the difference.  Note to self: determine growth rates for oaks, maples and chestnuts.

As I pass a railroad crossing I try to determine if the railroad is active or dormant.  There are many dormant or even removed railroad tracks in the area that I live.  Was there an old railroad station nearby? If so, are there old photographs of the railroad station?  Are there likely to be Sears "houses by mail" built in the area which were predominantly delivered by railroad?

When I pass by a church or an old store I wonder how old it is.  How long have people been attending service there or buying their goods there?  Is the architectural style colonial or Greek Revival or something else?

As I continue on I pass stone walls swallowed by new growth woods.  I think back to how this was all farmland at one point.  I try to imagine the landscape devoid of trees and glistening with green pastures and animals or crops.

Everywhere I go, whether countryside or city, I see history.  But don't get me wrong - I am very much in the present.  I make note of  history and try to determine how it has fared through the years and lasted until the present.   Why has it survived?  How can we help other links to the past continue to survive to the present day?

What does this have to do with genealogy? Everything.  My ancestors saw and touched those links to the past.  Those relics of history which exist in my present were in their present too.  It connects us and enriches my understanding of their lives and my own.

How is it that I started to see history everywhere?  I blame it on James Deetz.  You can read more about that in an earlier post "How James Deetz Changed My Life."


  1. I find myself starting to do this too Marian but you've given me new things to think about!

  2. I do this too, and even though I don't really have roots in SoCalif. where I live (though a few distant cousins once lived in my city), I couldn't resist picking up a photo history I spotted at the local library ("Images of America" is a great series). I love knowing the old building I've admired down the st. was a hotel in the 1920s or that the palm trees down the block were planted in the early 1900s. (History, at least of developed towns here, is barely old enough to be history in SoCal!)