Discovering Our Personal History

By Pat Jurgens  

            Ever notice how interesting history becomes as we grow older?  Growing up, we may not have cared about our great-grandparents, but as we move toward later years, they are pause for thought.  Who were they?  Where did they come from?  What were their lives like?  We all have a heritage from other countries and cultures. Like the Native Americans who were here first, all of our ancestors immigrated to America. We represent a rich fabric of cultures from around the world.

Our Family

The urge to find out who came before us draws many into genealogy and a quest for an extensive family tree of ancestors.  But it’s not necessary to be committed to genealogy in order to find excitement and satisfaction in your family heritage.  It may begin by talking to an aunt about her childhood, or discovering the photo of a relative you never knew.  You may be reading an historical novel and realize it was set in the same time and place where one of your forbearers lived.  The funeral of an elder family member can be an opportunity for sharing memories, and may instill the desire to know more about your heritage.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Talk with family members. Listen to their stories of the old days, the memories of their parents and those of aunts and uncles.
  • Dig through family archives – photos, letters, and scrapbooks will leave you bursting with questions, as well as answers.
  • Research artifacts handed down through the generations – silverware, jewelry, quilts and clothing.
  • Read about the place, time period and country of your family origin. Fiction (as well as nonfiction) is a great way to find a connection.
  • Research on the Internet to look up family and place names on Google or the search engine offered on the homepage of your Internet provider.
  • Travel to the old home place, whether it is a farm in Ohio, a flat in Ireland or a small town in Germany.  It is a thrill to find the dwelling of a family who preceded us.

We come from diverse origins.  Follow your own interest and pick one family line to learn more about them.  After you have gathered some information about your ancestors, let it sink into your imagination.  Put your thoughts in a journal or take a stab at writing some of their stories in memoir style (first-person, reflective point of view.)  Pay attention to your dreams.  Like me, you may find that the grandmothers help you intuit things you have no real way of knowing.  If you are open to this, it can be a magical experience.

Our Community

On a broader scale but still close to home, another aspect of history deserves our attention.  It is the history of our community, the place we call home.  This year Baltimore County is celebrating 350 years in the making.  Second only to Ellis Island, Baltimore was a leading port of entry for immigration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Irish and Germans came, then Italians, Eastern Europeans and African Americans in later decades.  Some farmed the rural areas; others settled in the city itself, which became an industrial port, shipbuilding center and railway link to the West.  Both Baltimore City and the County of Baltimore have been created and strengthened by diverse nationalities.

Check the following Web sites for local and family history information in the Baltimore area: — Discover local events commemorating Baltimore’s 350th anniversary, access “Link to History” to locate local museums and historical societies, learn about local books on the history of Baltimore, write your story and submit it online. — Browse this site for historic photos on Legacy Web, listings of historic events and sites, historic properties, history of neighborhoods and a bibliography of Baltimore County history.  You can ask a librarian a question by e-mail and receive an answer in 48 to 72 hours. – For genealogy enthusiasts, search for your ancestors in Baltimore County on US GenWeb or browse links for marriage, death and cemetery records.

Although many resources can now be explored online, the most accurate information is usually local, so go directly to the source:

  • Visit your public library and explore the local history collection.  This is usually made of up artifacts, maps and photos, some of which are now digitized and available online.  Don’t hesitate to ask librarians questions; they are there to help you.
  • Explore museums and historical societies. Learn about what kind of clothing people wore, what kind of livelihood they engaged in, what they ate and how they lived in earlier days.
  • Volunteer as a tour guide at a museum or a historic house in your town. It’s informative and lots of fun to learn about people and places from a different century.
  • Join the local historical society and participate in events and activities. By sharing your interests, you will gain new insights.

Wherever your ancestors lived when they came to the New World, there are resources similar to those mentioned above.  It’s exciting and somehow affirming to learn more about your family and community.  You may not find all the answers you seek, but you’re bound to gain a certain inner joy and a greater understanding of the lives of those who came before you.

Pat Jurgens is a writer and librarian who is working on a historical novel and cataloging historic photos at her local museum. Contact her at [email protected]


Please support OutLook by the Bay with a subscription.

OutLook by the Bay magazine and this website are made possible through the support of our advertisers and subscribers. We guarantee you’ll learn something new each issue. Please subscribe today.