How to Make the “Voices In Your Blood” Come Alive!
By G.G. Vandagriff
That “something” that stirs in your blood may have come directly from your ancestor.
Our genealogy is more than just names and dates. It is part of us in the most real of ways. The entity we call “me” is the most recent chapter in a long line of stories–stories belonging to those who make up our pedigree. Our ancestors have met life’s challenges in different ways, and in doing so have bequeathed to each of us a uniquely individual heritage. Part of that heritage contains burdens that may be difficult, part of it contains our richest blessings. But all of it tells us who we are.
In order for us to get past the names and dates on our pedigree chart it is necessary for us to become a little creative. A novelist by nature, I look at the bare facts on a death certificate I am extracting for my ward calling and develop a life story. It is second nature to me to weave facts into stories.
For that reason, I have been particularly excited to extend my pedigree into heretofore uncharted territory and to find it populated by individuals whose vital statistics pique my curiosity. I am beginning to write a history of my Revolutionary War ancestor, John Gibson. I know little about him except what he wrote on his pension application–he joined up in Coventry, Rhode Island, served for a year, later moved to the frontier of New York and practiced the trade of butcher. He died at the age of 96 in Jackson, Michigan, living with his daughter. But, through research, I have been able to discover his roots, and in them I find the keys to his character. His maternal and paternal grandfathers were founders of a Scottish Presbyterian Church in the little Scottish settlement of Voluntown, Connecticut in the 1720’s. His maternal grandfather, John Campbell, had come to this country from Northern Ireland in order to enjoy the freedom to worship as he pleased. Both grandfathers’ religion was very important to them, as is evidenced by early church records which include detailed articles of faith, not unlike those Joseph Smith penned, and a covenant which they signed. These details are especially intriguing to me, for they show the kind of background which my John Gibson had. He was raised by a father and mother, James and Martha Campbell Gibson, who had been associated with many correct principles and doctrine a hundred years before the First Vision. Their parents had prized freedom enough to leave their homes and settle in a new land, carving out a community and a religious environment which was of first importance to them. James and Martha, the first generation to be born in the colonies, had evidently raised their son to value and honor his heritage, for he enlisted in the Continental Army in January, 1776–seven months before the Declaration of Independence was even signed.
What does this mean to me? It means that I had ancestors who were seeking the truth and staking their lives on it one hundred years before the Gospel was restored to the earth. It helps me to value what I have. I know that their blood runs in my veins, and that part of who I am is who they were. I know from temple records that they were baptized by a distant Campbell cousin by proxy fifty years before I was born. I feel certain that I was born into their line, having known them pre-mortally, with the mission to seek out many of their posterity, who haven’t had their work done. James and Martha, though baptized and endowed, have never been sealed, because their marriage date is unknown. John’s family, for whom vital records do not exist, has never been sealed to him, nor he to his wife. I know they have been waiting for me. I feel honored and privileged to be the one to help them. After all, they helped form the foundations of my character by passing on who they were.
How do you forge this kind of bond with your ancestors? First, you must submerge yourself in their times, in their history. You must learn to see out of their eyes. What was important to them? What impact did current events have on their lives? If you had to assign a theme to your ancestor’s life, what would it be? An excellent resource to use to provoke these types of thoughts is Writing the Family Narrative, by Dr. Lawrence P. Gouldrup. He recommends asking the following questions:
1. Where did the family come from and where and why did it settle? Answering the why part of the question is really important. Were the pressures in your ancestor’s lives economic? Religious? Did they come from relationships? A great grandfather of mine immigrated to get away from his domineering German father.
2. How did the family earn its money and how did it spend it? Dr. Goldrup contrasts the wills of two ancestors which reveal an untold wealth of detail about them and their characters. One was a hardworking German with no debts and a prosperous farm. The other, a foppish town gentleman, possessed two wigs, but left no estate of value.
3. What did your family consider important or valuable? Obviously, my ancestors prized religious freedom above all else. Other ancestors of mine loved frontier life and had to constantly be on the move for fear that civilization would catch up with them. Did your family pull with or against the tide? What was their relationship to their environment?
As you strive to look out of your ancestor’s eyes and feel his or her blood within you, ask yourself what it means to you to be descended from this person. Have you learned anything about yourself from deciphering the details of your forebear’s life?
Attempting to answer this question honestly, while viewing your ancestor in his or her historical framework, can lend you a particular vision about family history work which cannot be gained in any other way. As you draw parallels between your forebear’s life and your own, surprising truths will emerge. You will feel a healing oneness between yourself and this person as you relate to his hopes and dreams, challenges and disappointments. And possibly for the first time, you will begin to understand the true Spirit of Elijah, and what it means to be a Savior on Mt. Zion.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.