Original historical research enthralls few besides professional historians, with one huge exception: family history. Genealogy is said to be the second most popular hobby in the United States, after gardening.
The desire to trace ancestry goes back millennia. Biblical lists detail generations of who begat whom. Family history has taken on new life with the expansion of retirement leisure; the computerization of vital records; the availability of DNA analysis; and disconnection from close-knit communities of kin.
Like any passionate research, genealogy offers the adventure of discovery. It’s exciting to dig out pieces of a puzzle and assemble them into an ever-growing story or picture. History provides an opening into distant times and cultures. Family history has the added draw of personal connection. It helps answer "Who am I?" and "Where do I fit in?"
Serious genealogists may trace every branch with equal vigor, but most of us pick and choose. Of my sixteen great-great-grandparents, only one was born a Gibbard, but that's who I mean when I say I’m descended from English bakers. Why take pride or identify more with one than another? Professor Henry Louis Gates of PBS’s Finding Your Roots says descendants of slaveholders needn’t feel ashamed; guilt isn’t hereditary. By the same token, while learning about our ancestors can help us understand ourselves, we can’t justly claim credit for their achievements.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.