The Problems and Wonders of Family Histories

Academics and ordinary people often disagree on what history should include or exclude. Academics have trained for years to gain the authority to teach and write about history. Given the sacrifices we have make to achieve that position, it is perhaps understandable that we defend our status as gatekeepers to the past. Once, when history books were few and far between, we could reasonably control what “history” was. That is no longer the case. Today anyone can explore the past, sometimes without even encountering a historian. It is less an academic exercise and more a personal journey into a past that is relevant to the individual. One of the most popular ways for non-academics to delve into history is genealogical research and family histories. Why is this aspect of history so compelling?  What does it mean for historians?

Genealogical research has been on the rise over the last two decades. Entire archival research rooms have been dedicated to them, but the advent of the world wide web has opened access to data in unprecedented ways. Archives still offer powerful search tools to find about your forebears, while others sites like RootsWeb and Geni's World Family Tree are invaluable links to your family's past. It is a personal exploration of history that is relatively easy, since you can do it from your desk at home, and incredibly engaging. Finding out where you came from is nearly addictive. Every tidbit you find leads you to search for more detail and connections. Like we've said before, history is about understanding who you are, or in this case, from whom you are.

We decided to see what we could find about one of our families online so as to personally experience building a family history. We chose Keelan because it is rare surname, which makes it easier to trace than the Smiths or Johnsons of North America. It's hard to trust online sources and we recognize that some of this information is not reliable. Our purpose was to see what we could uncover from our desk, right or wrong. Let's take off our historian hat for a moment.

Like so many European immigrants, we are of Irish origins. Initial searches revealed that Keelan is a popular given name, and (surprise surprise) it is a royal lineage. Allegedly Keelan was the shortened version of O Keelahan that had been anglicized from O Ceileachain, a chieftain in Ireland and one-time King of Munster in the mid-900s. Don't be fooled – 1100 years of descendants is hardly a convincing case for royal lineage in 2014. (Also, if you are interested in your own family history, never trust any site offering a heraldic shield or coat of arms. Unless you have direct and legitimate claims to aristocracy, most of these are fake and entirely made up for people to buy and hang on their cottage wall.) Keelans are most common today in County Monaghan, where a large 'clan' of Keelans have apparently been the source of many North American immigrants.

Gerard Keelan was born in Prelate, Saskatchewan, in 1919 and joined the RCMP in 1938. Family lore says that it was because there were few jobs in the 1930s, so you took what you could get. Two years later he joined the Army as part of the Canadian Provost Corps (Military Police) and was sent overseas. On April 30 1941, he had the misfortune of being aboard the SS Nerissa, a troopship on its way to Great Britain. It was hit by three German torpedoes just off the Irish coast and sank within minutes. It was the only loss of Canadian solders as they were transported across the Atlantic during either World War, so it has some acclaim. Gerard survived clinging to a life raft for hours in the dark, stormy north Atlantic when many could not hold on until rescue arrived.

He went on to serve with the No. 13 Provost Company and married an English woman, Irene Trott. He left the Army in 1945 and returned to the RCMP. After the war he served in Regina, West Germany, and London, England, before being stationed in Winnipeg. For a time his work with the RCMP included screening potential Nazis for immigration to Canada. His work screening Germans in Karlsruhe would be a key aspect of court cases in the 1990s as Canada investigated whether ageing war criminals had lied to enter the country in the 1950s. Keelan retired in 1962 and then took a position with the Saskatoon police department until 1982.

Gerard's father was John Joseph Keelan, who was born in 1888 in Mildmay, Ontario, but moved to Prelate in 1917. J.J. Keelan studied Law at the University of Manitoba in 1912 and turned to provincial politics in the 1920s. He married Florence Axford, the daughter of a Manitoban civil servant Frederick Thomas Axford. He was elected as a Saskatchewan Liberal for the constituency of Happyland in 1925 but retired in 1929. The 1925 Happyland election was marred with allegations of “irregularities.” The Progressive opponent gathered a list of voters who claimed they had not actually voted where the polling stations claimed they had. Unfortunately for the Progressive candidate and fortunately for J.J. Keelan no formal legal challenge was filed. By the time they did, it had been longer than the six months allowed under election law for such charges. The poll books listing who had voted where had been destroyed. The opposition party continued raising Happyland as an instance of potential fraud, but Liberal Premier James Gardiner did his best to ignore them.

John Keelan's father was Henry Keelan, a baker in Mildmay, who had been born in 1855. One of his other sons, Raymond Keelan, joined the Canadian Army during the First World War. He arrived on the front as part of the 72nd Battalion (today the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada) in November, 1916. Raymond died at Vimy Ridge on April 9th a few days before his 21st birthday and his name is carved into the monument that rests there today. According to sparse online records, Henry and his wife Amelia had a large family. Henry's father Patrick married Mary McMahon, and it's there where the online records sputter out. Presumably Patrick, who may have been born in Ireland in 1812, arrived in Canada sometime before the birth of his first child in 1848. It's likely he arrived in New York and then travelled to Canada, but it's impossible to say. Perhaps he came from County Monaghan like so many other North American Keelans.

If you've kept with us so far through this meandering family history, you might be thinking several things. This is of little interest to anyone but a Keelan. This is inaccurate. This isn't real, proper, or good history. All of that could be true. But that does little to explain the allure of genealogical research and family histories. Some people spend hours collecting names in journals or excel files, carefully tracing births and deaths of people which they will never know. Gone is the complexity of their lived experiences. All that remains of their lives is sometimes distilled into a few lines of information – born, married, died - and of course, you. They raised children, who went on to have children, who raised your parents. History can never be so personally relevant as when it explains your very existence. Genealogy, though it may be “simple history” compared to what historians examine, makes history interesting. That is worth taking note.

Family stories connect to larger ones. Keelans have participated in two world wars and some historic moments from them. We were involved in Saskatchewan politics (perhaps too involved) and ran a bakery. This is just a small slice of our family history – other Keelans were bomber pilots or worked in China with the United Nation Refugee Relief Administration, the precursor to the United Nations. For most families, these stories make 'big picture' history interesting. We want to learn about the First World War or the Mayflower landing at Plymouth because our ancestors were involved in them. Not that it's an ideal love of history. Some want to learn that they might be royalty or about their ancestor the apocryphal “indian princess” or that they are seven times removed from being related to President Obama. They believe such claims even though seven generations removed means little to who they are today.

It's not the historian's place to devalue what others think of the past. History must be individually enlightening one way or the other, and who's to say how that happens. We will always be the gatekeepers who control “access” to the past and judge its accuracy, but we do not guard the only door. Some will research their family's history without ever encountering a professional historian. They will register for one of the ancestry websites, perhaps go to an archive, and compile their own list for their family.  Easy and fast information access means that professional history is becoming less popular than "popular history."  At least they are exploring the past.

Historians might worry that it devalues our profession. Perhaps it might. But to live in age where one's family history is immediately accessible is a wondrous time. Four hours and three coffees on a Sunday morning let's you discover why you are who you are. That's amazing. On one hand, historians worry that students and citizens care less and less about history. They take less courses. They read less books. Their eyes glaze over when you lecture. On the other hand, never before has history been so readily available to so many, at least independent of family lore passed down generation to generation. We should take solace in the fact that, though historians might have less control over how people engage with the past, they have many new opportunities to do it. In the digital age, we cannot survive as gatekeepers to the past. Too many doors are open. If people are going to decide to come through the doors we are guarding, we will have to convince them it's worthwhile.