Sunday 9 March 2014

Genealogical Culture Shock

Anyone who has been involved in international exchange or, traveled and lived in another country, will be well aware of the disorientation or culture shock experienced when negotiating a new and unfamiliar environment.  I believe that genealogists and family tree researchers can experience something similar to culture shock when they start researching an ancestor who has lived in a country that they are unfamiliar with.

At the end of last year  I discovered an obituary for my great great grandfather Donald McDonald.  I knew, from his death certificate, that he had immigrated to Australia in the mid 1850’s and that he was born in Williamstown, Ontario Canada and his father was Malcolm McDonald. 
Obituary Donald McDonald

I have been able to find considerable information on Donald’s  life in Australia, where he worked in the gold mining areas of the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. However, until the discovery of his obituary, his life before arriving in Australia was a bit of a mystery.

The obituary has provided a number of clues and starting points to further research the earlier years of his life and family connections in Canada. These clues include:  family links with the early days of the Hudson Bay Company, his the family came from the Glengarry district and that he had traveled to the gold fields of California before making the trip with friends to Australia.  A transcribed copy of the Obituary can be found on my post, Sunday's Obituary, Donald McDonald 1834-1913.

With renewed enthusiasm I started to delve into the genealogical world of Glengarry, Canada and the Scottish immigrants, only to find I was way out of my depth. I discovered that trying to trace a Donald McDonald or Malcolm McDonald in the Glengarry district of Canada, was very similar to researching a John Smith or Richard Taylor in the United Kingdom.  There are numerous generations of McDonald/McDonell’s with the Christian names of Donald or Malcolm!  In a way it was exciting to see that there was so much history related to the McDonald Family in this area of Canada.  However, it was also little daunting. Where do I start!!

So many questions arose!  How do I research birth, death and marriages in Canada? Are there on line newspapers? Where do I find immigration records? What was the history behind the Scottish immigration to Canada, what was their role in Canadian history?  All that assumed knowledge and familiarity with country history, culture, language  and resources that I rely on when researching family in Australia and UK was not there!!!! It was all new and unfamiliar!!  It then dawned on me that I was in a way experiencing “genealogical culture shock”.  Yes, all the signs are there, new cultures, both Scottish and Canadian, new social structures, information overload, so much to read and get my head around, new languages, and understanding the different historical circumstances that my ancestors had lived in.

So I thought I would approach my new research project on Donald McDonald and his family in Canada with an awareness of the culture shock that I was experiencing and use this awareness to develop a sensible approach  to my new research project on Donald McDonald and my ancestors in Canada.

To start with identify the signs of possible frustrations:
-         Lack of confidence in my knowledge
-         Loss of familiar connections - i.e. familiar websites, genealogical societies and connection with    fellow researchers     
-         Lack of direction, all over the place with no systematic connection
-         Not sure how to approach the research in a new country or who to contact
-         Very limited knowledge of the relevant  history
-         Very limited knowledge of the geography of the area
-         Frustration and irritation with lack of research progress
-         Disappointment after the initial excitement of finding the obituary
-         Discovery of new and unfamiliar set of cultural values and practices
-         Frustration with having to research documents in another language

There are a number of options:  you could become frustrated, embarrassed by you lack of knowledge and understanding of the new research environment and give up on your research or you could approach the problem with acceptance, and slowly work your way through the difficulties. The diagram below demonstrates the possible options:

Genealogical Culture Shock
As the diagram demonstrates the researcher can move from frustration through to new discoveries, or become frustrated and hit a brick wall and give up on the research.  After some careful consideration here are some suggested ways to move through the genealogical culture shock:

-        Collaborate and call on the experience of fellow researchers.  They may be able to assist you with some of your stumbling blocks.
-        Be open minded and share any knowledge you have, and make notes of every little snippet of information you come across, as these may mean more to you once you have a better knowledge. and understanding of the area you are researching.
-        Break down your research into a systematic, step by step process.
-        Read!!  Try and read as much as you can (from Internet and books) on the history of the area and the culture and customs of the people who lived in the time of your ancestor.
-        Familiarise yourself with the geography of the area you are researching, look at present day maps and older maps if possible.  A knowledge of the surrounding towns, proximity to rivers, sea can all be helpful.  A map with pins marking towns and significant events can assist as well.
-        Establish a new research network in that area by contacting local libraries, archives and genealogy societies.
-        Use social media to link up with other researchers or people with interests in this area e.g. twitter, google+, facebook and pinterest.  This can be done by searching the district, town or surname or even if you know it the occupation of your ancestor.
-        Search for blogs written by people who are researching this area or family.

Now all I have to do is to put these action points into practise and see if I can discover more about my great great grandfather, Donald.  I would be very interested to hear how other researchers approach this,  i.e. when they find themselves in a totally unfamiliar area of research, and of course I will welcome any advice that anyone can give me on researching in this particular area of Canada. 

1913 'Death of an Old Identity.', The Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal (NSW : 1888 - 1954), 16 April, p. 2, viewed 23 February, 2014,


  1. I like your approach, Diane. 'Genealogical culture shock' is a great phrase. I definitely agree about learning as much about the history, culture and geography of the area your ancestor was in when you research them. That's when genealogy and family history overlap with social history and the result is (for me, anyway) a much richer picture.

  2. thanks, like you I really want to know more about the times that my ancestors lived in. I think it helps me to understand their lives a little more. Besides that I find the social history fascinating.

  3. How wonderful to find the obituary and discover more on your great great grandfather's early life in Canada. I agree so much with both comments. It is the social history and the understanding of the times and places linked to our ancestors that create the wider family history story. A very interesting post. .

  4. I suffered a huge case of "Genealogical Culture Shock" last year when I tried to follow up an ancestor in New York. I was a fish out of water!

    My main issue was not a lack of knowledge about the social history. I needed to get my head around the history and structure of government and its records in the area I was researching.

    Having learnt a little about this topic I feel more prepared for my next visit to New York City.

  5. I have Genealogical Culture Shock now as it pertains to my ancestry located in Mexico. I feel like I am a fish out of water. I am going to relook at everything and systematically do and learn more about my history, and learn more of the language so I can break down those brick walls.

    1. Yvette, I follow @MexicanGenealog on Twitter; they've been very helpful when I've need assistance trying to sort out where to look for records. Learning the language and getting to know the history (which is really interesting) is the best.

    2. I can relate to this Yvette, I spent 6 months living in Mexico about three years ago. It was my time there that inspired this post.

  6. What a great phrase! Now I know what I'll call it when I run into it again. Your suggestions are a great way to learn new skills without getting frustrated.


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