When I first began my adventures in genealogy, I signed up for an ancestry subscription and excitedly began filling up my tree with lots of leaves of all the relatives I knew, heard of over the years but never knew how they connected to me, and ancestors long gone. It became a challenge to see how far back I could go and how many people I could find.
What I soon came to realize was that understanding the history of the time often put the actions of people into perspective. For example, I had Irish relatives who ended up in Australia, but why? A little digging into history taught me that there was a gold rush in Australia during that time period, so that was why some people who left Ireland during the potato famine ended up down there.
My search for answers about my grandfather’s decision to bring his family to the Soviet Union led me to history books on the Great Depression here, in Europe, and in the USSR. I learned that many Americans did travel to the USSR in the early 1930s, enticed by promises of jobs because the effects of the Depression were apparently not felt there since the Soviet Union had isolated itself from the rest of the world.
It turns out the Henry Ford conducted more business with the Soviet Union between 1929-1936 than any other country in the world, which explained why there were so many Americans there.
Dad told the story about an assassination of a man named Kirov shortly after they arrived. My research told me that act was the beginning of a reign of terror under Joseph Stalin lasting many years, in which millions of Soviet and American citizens were killed. My father’s family did not all escape these purges. That made me understand the mood of the country while Dad’s family was living there and made me realize how frightening it must have been. My grandfather later admitted to my father that it had been a mistake moving there.
Every time I wanted to understand why they did what they did, I frequently found that looking to history gave me the answers. So I am suggesting that ancestry research should be more than pulling information off of a census record, birth certificate or someone else’s tree. Researching the history will often lead to answers to some of the mysteries of our ancestors.