Photo of a woman. Photo courtesy of Fraser Dunford

Photo: Photo of a woman. Photo courtesy of Fraser Dunford


Dr. Fraser Dunford


Published Date: May 06, 2010

While we are all familiar with local archives, museums and libraries (and the materials they contain), you may be startled to discover what individual collections hold.

As a genealogist, I know a great many other genealogists. If you root through a genealogist’s study, you will find bookshelves laden with local histories that would be the envy of many small local libraries. After all, an interest in a particular family naturally leads to an interest in other families – and an interest in a family in a particular community also leads to an increased interest in that community’s history. Beyond who our ancestors were, we want to know what they did in their lives, where they lived, when major events occurred, and – most of all – why they did the seemingly inexplicable things they did.

But it goes further than that. Many genealogists also collect family heirlooms – from photographs and paintings to quilts and samplers. Some collectors have little hand-carved wooden boxes that tell of a momentous, sad episode in our history. Others have axes that were used to cut down the original forest, or guns that were used to provide meat for a hungry pioneer family. We genealogists tend to keep these things because they are a part of our family and our individual history. We intend to pass them on to the next generation.

But these heirlooms represent more than the individual. They represent a community. When I look at my genealogy bookshelf, nearly half of it is comprised of local histories of Peterborough County (I am the fifth generation to have lived there). History explains events. I could not understand why some of my cadet lines suddenly moved a couple of townships north until a local history described the construction of a settlement road in that area.

Interest in local history quickly leads to broader historical topics. The policy on settlement roads and how and where they were built had a noticeable impact on the pattern of settlement in Ontario. My wandering ancestors led to my interest in how Ontario grew. If you discover that one of your ancestors was a rebel in 1837 (or was one of the militia who put down the rebellion), you suddenly become quite interested in the history of that era.

Good genealogists and local historians will look around their study, make a list and talk with their local museum or archive. Even if the items are going to a knowledgeable and interested descendant, the community might still be interested in knowing what you have and where it is. After all, my history is a part of a much greater one.