How I Became a History Fan (Not in School)

I was bored with history all the way through high school and college. So how did I become such a fan?

The U.S. Air Force sent my husband Guy to Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. I was invited to a “knitting” group which included civilian women of all ages as well as other military wives.

It was always called “knitting” but the gals did a variety of crafts and handwork, which I’d always enjoyed. The evening always included a dessert, provided by the hostess. When it was my turn to have the group, Guy would come home and open all the windows. Those were the days when smoking was commonplace.

One day one of the women announced that she’d gotten Civil War records about her great great grandfather. I had no idea that was even possible. How do you even start such a pursuit?

She sent me to the library to find a book called Know Your Ancestors. It took me step by step starting with writing my grandparents for everything they knew about their own parents and grandparents. Eventually I asked my grandmothers to write down the stories of their lives, which they both did. Such treasures!

Before long I was ordering copies of birth and death certificates and Civil War pension papers, which lead to reading biographies of Abraham Lincoln and histories of the Civil War.

Genealogy yielded real human beings, putting names and even faces on eras of American history, making it come alive for me.

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After chasing names and dates as far back as I could, I began collecting cousins who wanted to know what I’d learned. Before our son was born in 1974, I typed up a couple of genealogies. I also transcribed my grandmothers’ memoirs and added photos to print and share.

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My favorite generations to study have been the Mayflower (Guy and I have a total of five ancestors who came on the famous ship), and the whaling era of Nantucket Island.

Recent years have been devoted to fleshing out individuals on my family tree, especially those of my motherline, trying to imagine how Emilia came to Iowa from Ohio in a covered wagon as an 8-year-old, her first child (Laura) being born in the log cabin in Guthrie County three years after the end of the Civil War, her oldest daughter (Leora) riding a horse over dirt roads to piano lessons in Audubon, and attending sewing school in Exira in 1910, Laura learning to vote the first time in 1920 (Guthrie Center), Leora losing twins to whooping cough in 1929 (Dexter), Iowa waitress Doris becoming an officer’s wife in Texas during WWII, losing those three younger brothers.

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But as I would study my ancestors, I’d also study what was going on in the world that they would have known about. That’s what finally made history interesting for me.

History is people!





  1. Your closing statement is a another way of saying what I’ve said for years: History is biography. My love of history, unlike yours, began in school when I began reading biographies, and that interest gradually broadened (only in later years has it narrowed). It sounds as though you’ve done (and continued pursuing) a wonderful job of collecting the stories of your people, putting into practice the advice that Donald Davidson gave Jesse Stuart: “Go back to your people and write of them. Your people have your material. (I enjoyed the cartoons, too!)

  2. I didn’t like history in school either…. and also find genealogy to be fascinating.

      • could be……can’t remember for sure who taught history, but it could easily have been the coach… superintendent was typing teacher…and he helped coach girls basketball….

  3. It seems I am the official family genealogist. I find it like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle with many missing pieces. You have to dig and dig eventually filling in that empty space with your best guess.

    Some in the family could care less. Most find it mildly interesting.

    • I ran out of steam for the outer reaches of ancestors, even sooner for some branches. But ending up with Grandma Leora’s photos and realizing I knew the stories BEHIND so many of them, what fun I’m having with this not-so-long ago history. (I’m working on her Depression Era stories, with her earlier ones mapped out!)

  4. I learned that history is people at a very young age from my dad. It was until I went to college that I realized that Nebuchadnezzar wasn’t a contemporary of his.

  5. I hated history in school but loved books that taught me a lot and a magazine called American History Illustrated. But I never really dove in until the genealogy bug bit. Now I’ll never quit. There’s no such thing as “done” with family history! Boy, you can really see the family resemblance in those generations of women.

  6. Yes, just like historical fiction, genealogy and family history can be a gateway to the rest of the past for those who didn’t enjoy the subject in school. I loved history, but soon found that the personal stories were even better than the events and dates 🙂

    • Wish I’d become interested earlier, as my great grandmother was still living when I started college. She was born in a log cabin shortly after the Civil War! Oh, I wish I’d asked questions. Teresa, I just finished a book you might be interested in–I’ve reviewed it on Amazon, etc., yesterday, but it will be part of a blog tour (my turn will be March 3). “Guns and Gods in My Genes” by Neill McKee.

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