Is there a better way to learn about history than through the eyes of an ancestor? I haven’t found it.
History can often appear as flat facts and irrelevant numbers, as old and boring. Learning history as the place where ancestors came from is an entirely different prospect.
What about the Industrial Revolution? To me it used to be a list of facts to learn: Eli Whitney invented the gin. Labor moved from farms to cities. Coal and steel powered the machinery. People became more prosperous. But the work was monotonous, repetitive, dangerous. Hours were long and children slaved away.
Now, when I think of that critical period of human history, I think of my Martin men and women who lived it. They left their farms in Ireland and began to work in the mines of Scotland. They crawled into the bowels of the earth to bring out the coal and iron that fueled the industrial revolution. The work was difficult beyond imagining. Miners worked in two-foot-tall tunnels, lying on their sides as they swung their picks to dislodge the ore embedded in hard rock. They breathed the dust of the disturbed earth, while they listened and watched for signs of shifting earth, flooding water, deadly gases or explosions. That was the price paid with human toil for the progress we enjoy today. That is the glory and tragedy of the Industrial Revolution.
What about the California Gold Rush of 1849? Who were these crazy people who left home and ran off hoping to get rich? Well, one of them was a great-great grandfather who lived in Connecticut and had owned a textile mill. He boarded a 100-foot wooden boat and sailed around Cape Horn to reach the promised riches that never materialized. I may not understand why he did, but learning his story has taught me to respect that drive for prosperity.
For me, the American Dream is two Irish/Scottish orphans who immigrated to the United States, where they became successful, wealthy mine owners. Their siblings remained in Scotland and Ireland continued to work hard, barely making ends meet, or living in the workhouse when they couldn’t.
Child labor reform and literacy efforts took family members out of the mines and sent them to school. Rosanna and William Martin were illiterate; half of their children learned to read and write; their great and great great grandchildren are doctors, lawyers, nurses, professors, successful businessmen and women, artists, and musicians. Many have advanced degrees and all use their education to enrich the community and their own and their families’ lives.
Seeing history through ancestor eyes does more than just teach history; it instills understanding, compassion, and courage. It helps shrink my problems back to a manageable proportion and encourages a deep sense of gratitude for the world I live in, as gifted by my foremothers, forefathers, and all those who came before.