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The Compleat Database: Cultural Affinities

Every genealogical database should have a field for entering cultural information. Very few historians record hobbies in their database. They just don't seem relevant. The fact is hobbies and cultural connections are a goldmine.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: JudyRosella Edwards
Word Count: 1030 (approx.)
Labels: Census 
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In a world where cultural diversity has become a common everyday term, cultural affinities may seem odd or stereotypical. An affinity is a connection between someone and their ancestral heritage.

Religion

An ancestor who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park might have diaries or other memorabilia of lingonberry church breakfasts and lutefisk dinners. Chances are pretty good that ancestor was of Norwegian descent and attended a Lutheran Church. Affinities were what brought family together in the New World. As recently as 1988, a church in Oak Park published a history book claiming that "the church was an ethnic island in the Village of Oak Park." That was largely true from 1925 until the 1990s.

Holidays

Holidays are another cultural affinity. Search diaries for entries about Christmas. Not everyone celebrates Christmas, for a wide variety of reasons. But, anyone who does celebrate the traditional Christmas holiday with Jesus is probably not Jewish. Santa Claus may be another matter. And a Jewish family may celebrate a different type of holiday at "Easter" time. They also celebrate other holidays not recognized by other religions. Genealogists can make some early assumptions about someone based on holidays. It is essential to follow up those assumptions and determine if they are true.

Cultural Life

I have a photo of my great-grandmother smoking a pipe. Few women throughout history have smoked pipes. She adopted the habit from her Cherokee ancestors. Sometimes the absence of something becomes a cultural affinity. Orthodox Jewish people aren't likely to eat ham. Someone from India may not eat beef. Look carefully at family recipes and cookbooks. They may reveal an affinity.

Cultural Relatives

Godparents are more common in certain cultures. Include them in your database. They will likely have photos and other records about godchildren. A major responsibility godparents assume is the role of raising a godchild in the event of the parents' death. What appears to be someone's parents may be adoptive godparents. Researching the godparents may result in lineage that is not biologically connected to the person in question.

Another cultural affinity can be names. Obviously, this does not hold true as much in more recent generations. But, when a researcher visited my husband's family burial ground, she asked if his family was Jewish, because so many of the women had Jewish-sounding names. They were German, but they were not Jewish.

When reading American census returns, don't overlook those cultural connections to the Motherland. Bette Imig may have married Jimmy McElhinney and named her daughter Golda in honor of her own heritage. Question the cultural significance of a child named Golda McElhinney.

Fun Hobbies

Great-Grandpa Phil, who raised giant pumpkins, probably participated in some competitions. Those competitions place him squarely at a specific location at a given time in history. His name was probably in the newspaper. There may have been an interview in the local newspaper. Best of all, hobbies give character to ancestors. Their hobbies could also be family legacies, such as a pumpkin pie recipe Aunt Mabel used when she won first prize at the State Fair.

Hobbies can come and go at various times in a person's life. Often, people take up a new hobby when they retire. My own Aunt Vera took up oil painting when she was 80 years old – and she was good at it! She was a hobbyist, but the fact that she did it is charming and inspiring.

Hobbies such as crafts also tell a story. I once found a quilt bearing the names of Holocaust survivors sewn on individual patches. Again, there are online resources to help research such things, as shown in the following examples:

Cultural Collectibles

On a more serious note, pay attention to trinkets that have been passed down through the generations. It could be that charming pipe Great-Grandma smoked was made in North Carolina. Was that collection of arrowheads a lucky find – or were they made by someone in the family? Arrowhead designs can be identified by culture, providing more genealogical evidence. Language

Then, of course, there is language. What was that odd language you heard Great-Grandpa speaking? Was it Russian?

An ancestor of my husband's has a poem engraved on his gravestone. It was written, not just in German, but in High German. A translator said that the poem was so beautiful it brought tears to her eyes. High German, among other things, is a geographical location. The family, it turns out, migrated from high Germany.

For more information on linguistics, visit The Center for Applied Linguistics Collection.

Music

Where did your family learn their songs? Where did your grandmother learn that lullaby that you've not heard anyplace else? You can research songs online at Library of Congress' American Folklife Center. They hold the Alan Lomax Collection from the 1930's and 1940's. Lomax travelled the country documenting music, dance, and stories of the American South, along with a number of other countries.

In fact, there is quite a collection of cultural music online:

There are a variety of other cultural affinities that offer up clues to genealogists. Take a look at:

Families inherit traditions from cultural connections. There are cultural nuances related to birth, death, marriage, and just about everything in between.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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