History Links the Past to the Present

by Bob Brooke

History affects everyone, whether they like it or not. What happens now becomes history as soon as it's completed. Today, that awareness has been made even more acute by the mass media, which has brought us all together through modern technology. What happens on one side of the country or world greatly affects those of us living on the other side. But this wasn't always the case.

As the land affected the general history of a region, so did it affect the region's social and economic history. The lives of farmers in the North were vastly different from those in the South. The environment of each region produced men with different attitudes, religious beliefs, and economic stability. Local history helps a genealogist understand the details of the lives of residents, both how they moved within a region and why they migrated from it.

When the great westward migration began in the early 19th century, groups of people traveled over trails set by explorers. The history of these migration paths and the places migrants settled must be understood by even the beginning genealogist, especially when he or she finds that their ancestor has gone west.

Since men tended to live where there was work, local, regional and national history become affected. In addition, the economic conditions in a particular area had an effect on the lives of not only these men's families but also on their customs.

When new industries moved into an region, the population increased. When work was no longer available, families moved. Where people go can become a genealogical research nightmare. However, the history of the place they left can often point the researcher in the right direction.

If farming is productive or work constant, families tended to remain in one place for generations. Without a large influx of new families, it was possible to maintain local customs for a long time. The families formed a cohesive group, much like the Amish in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Also, local history helps point out the nationality of the groups that settled there. The population of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is made up a number of ethnic groups who came to work in the steel mills. These people brought with them their customs in religion, marriage and daily living from their homelands.

Sometimes, when great numbers of an ethnic group settled in one area, the original settlers would find it profitable to sell out to the newcomers and move on. Knowing the occupation of those who moved may be helpful in tracing where they went. Work in newly opened places often called out to families in which the father and sons were skilled carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers, or traders. Just as the early colonists of the United States consisted of skilled workmen, so other settlements required the experienced worker.

In modern times, whole groups of immigrants have been sent from their port of entry to the industries where they were needed. The building of the railroads in the 19th century is a good example. Also, the mines of Eastern Pennsylvania, the farms of mid-America, and the lumbering operations in the northwest, all accepted and absorbed immigrants.

Wars have also had an effect on population shifts. The soldiers who fought in them saw new and more desirable lands and ways of life. The French and Indian War took men from their occupations in the colonies to distant regions they knew only vaguely. During the Revolutionary War, men from all over the colonies left home, many for the first time. In fact, the Revolution did as much to open up this country as the explorers. Soldiers from one region got to know what another was like and this had a long-lasting effect. The Civil War, and World Wars I and II had the same effect.

Tracing a family following a war may be difficult, but if the former soldier received either land or a pension for his services and moved on, he can probably be found in the records of the part of the country where he served.

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