Why climb the family tree?

In different hours, a man represents each of several of his ancestors, as if there were seven or eight of us rolled up in each man’s skin,—seven or eight ancestors at least, and they constitute the variety of notes for that new piece of music which his life is.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

(Essayist . Lecturer . Poet — 1803-1882)


Why climb the family tree?

What motivates someone to root themselves in the search for their ancestors and see how far the branches will grow?

Judging by the commercial call-to-action of online family history research sites there appears to be a growing interest in people to discover their roots. Sign up, sign in and a world of connection awaits. What took me years to accumulate through old school methods almost 30 years ago is now frequently available by simply typing a name, hitting “Enter” and watching what sprouts.

As a budding genealogist all those years ago, I spent many, many hours venturing to genealogical libraries, studying volumes of microfiche, writing letters to archivists, and attending genealogical workshops and conferences. As a wonderful starting point, hours were spent combing through boxes of old photographs and family papers my maternal grandfather had left behind when he passed away.

And thank goodness he had, or I might never have had a chance to acquaint myself with the family history behind my personal mystery.

But that wasn’t why I did it … at least, not at first.

Like most people lured to their ancestral past, I was searching for lost glory … looking, for a link to some famous character in history, or royalty, or celebrity, or event. Our family lore mentioned of a link to Swedish royalty, way back when. I wanted to find it.

Grandpa’s withered documents were a tremendous resource. Sifting through the yellowed, tattered papers with their handwritten lineages and stories was a veritable treasure hunt. What little tidbit would reveal itself next? And the candid sepia photographs and portraits of my forebears confirmed the physical connection. Yes, that Belton chin really does run in the family.


Seated: My great, great, grandfather Henry Belton and his wife Mary Jane Crouse, with two of their children. Circa 1890

The quest for my “royal” roots is what drove me, but in the process of researching I uncovered so much more.

Heroes, villains, thrivers and survivors dotted the branches as they grew. Their lives were coloured with strength of character; cowardice; mountains of creativity; mental health issues; joy; sorrow; pain; loss; wealth, poverty, adventure … .

I met United Empire Loyalist ancestors who’d fought and lost everything in the American Revolution and were among the first migrants to Upper Canada from New York State in the 1770s.

I learned about the hardships of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression in Alberta in the 1930s and the mental, emotional and physical toll this had on my grandfather’s family (something from which he never recovered.)

I learned about my Scottish ancestors who left Glasgow for the promise of a new life in Canada and pioneered in northern Alberta in the 1920s.

I learned about my Irish ancestors who fled to Canada to escape the great potato famine in the 1850s.

I learned to appreciate, and identify with, the many strong women who’d endured great emotional, psychological and physical hardships in the face of great challenges including, in some cases, their misogynist husbands.

Perhaps one of the most important things I realized is the influence my ancestors’ experiences, for good or ill, have had my own views of, and responses to, the world around me.

I’ve come to the conclusion that we are the sum total of our ancestors’ experiences plus what we bring into this world and what happens to us while we’re here. That residing in each of us, at some level, lies the pain, joy, sorrow, heroism, cowardice, creativity, adventure, bravery, villainy, love, and so on, that permeated the lives of those who came before. What we do with this is up to us.

Simplistic? Maybe. However, it is, for me, a liberating notion. Why? Because I can see a more complete picture of who I am and set about nurturing what I like about myself while releasing what I don’t like. This, of course, is impossible without some level of self-awareness.

Bantry ND

Bantry, North Dakota, circa 1909 … the town and year of my grandfather’s birth

For all that he loved his family history my maternal grandfather was a deeply troubled man and a bully. He terrorized all the women in his life, including his mother, his wives (he married four times) and his daughter, my mother.

Not surprisingly, her terrors, seemingly by osmosis (because mom’s always insisted she did her best to guard me against grandpa’s influence), infiltrated my own interactions with the world. This was something I was unable to change until I sought help to unseal all the locked places in my psyche and drew into the conversation my knowledge of family history.

Talk about  an “Ah, ha!” moment.

Fortunately, by climbing the family tree I’ve been able to examine grandpa’s life, more closely than I might otherwise, and understand, to a certain extent, the origins of his demons (just keep climbing that tree). As well, once I could let go of my anger toward him, I was able to create space for compassion and forgiveness.

I realized too that I have the power to stay the tide of his despair. Even though there is no next generation for my family, I can heal my life so it’s more enjoyable for me and the people who share it.

So, why climb the family tree?

On the surface it’s a wonderfully rich, personal adventure into history, the parts our families played in it and how they were effected by events of their time. I was never more curious about the American Revolution than when I learned the role my family played in it.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is the incredible role our ancestors can play in our healing journey while we are making our own history and creating, as Ralph Waldo Emerson so beautifully put it “… the new piece of music which is [our] life.”

That, as I discovered, is why I climbed my family tree …


Be well …

Dorothy 🙂


PS During my climb I discovered that one of my ancestors was, indeed, Royal Physician to Queen Christina of Sweden in the 17th century. This was confirmed by a Swedish genealogist I’d hired to do the research based on information provided from my grandfather’s papers. 


Copyright Aimwell CreativeWorks 2013