Considering ‘Culture’ as the Heritage Tourist

The Heritage Tourist
a monthly column by Dr. Bill Smith


As the Heritage Tourist, I look at historical, cultural, and natural aspects of the social context of my ancestors that I explore in my family history and genealogy research and reporting. I can, if I choose, then use some of these aspects to help decide where to travel to explore these details more extensively.


This month, I want to look more in-depth at what we, today, think of as cultural issues. The use of the word 'culture' goes clear back to Cicero [1]. After passing through romanticism and the enlightenment, in the 20th century 'culture' has emerged as the central and unifying concept of American anthropology [2]. Here, culture includes all human phenomena that are not purely the results of human genetics. (Had you thought of it that way? I hadn't!) Further (one final 'formal' definition), culture, in American anthropology had two meanings: 1) the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, to act imaginatively and creatively; and 2) the distinct ways that people living in different parts of the world classified and represented their experience and acted creatively. Whew!  😉


To me this translates into all the different ways we classify ourselves and how we create things and thoughts that affect who we are and how we conduct ourselves. This may be by religion, politics, education, occupations, or social organizations. This may be through music, linguistics, sculpture, art, writing, philosophy, etc. These two lists bring quickly to mind the several writers we have here at IDG, and, the writers the editors are still looking for: they are by categories of country origin, religion, crafts, etc. We, therefore, are part of the culture, of course. By reading each of our writer's works, we are learning the cultural aspects of our research.


I just mentioned "education, occupations and social organizations" as ways we categorize ourselves in our culture. Do you always look at these elements when you think of culture? They are easy to forget. How much education did your ancestor receive? Little or a lot? Where, when, and how? Most of my ancestors were farmers, but a few did other things. I have found these tell me a lot about the particular social context of those days. Work on the railroads being built across the country? Gold miner in California, Idaho and Montana? These can certainly be the basis of some heritage tourism considerations, for sure.


On my heritage tourism 'bucket list' is to visit the sites of my gold miner/rancher great-great-grandfather from the 1850-1880 period. He went to California from Ohio in 1850 as a fifteen year old. He owned a one-eighth interest in a very successful mine, but sold out and moved on before it 'made it' really big. In Idaho, his partner ran off with their profits. In Montana, he settled a homestead ranch to raise Morgan Horses, but continued to be drawn off to the Montana gold fields to superintend several ditches and mines being developed. He always managed to lose more than he made, it seemed. He did manage to sire my great-grandmother, and her three brothers, along the way; and let them follow their mother to Iowa. So, I thank him for that!


Even my farmer ancestors, at different times, were involved with the Grange [3], Stockmen's Associations [4], Cattlemen's Associations [5], Pork Producers [6], etc. Depending on time and place, each of these played large and small roles in the communities where they lived, worked and raised their families. It is easy to just think, "Oh, they were just farmers!" But that may have made them special in their time and place - their social context - their culture. What was the interplay of these parts of their culture with their religious affiliations and their political associations? These were certainly part of what made them who they were - and part of who we are today. How often do you consider these aspects of your ancestor lives? Regularly, I hope. Now, if not before.






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Dr. Bill Smith is the author of The Heritage Tourist, a monthly column in The In-Depth Genealogist which focuses on the social context of travel and history when applied to our genealogy. Dr. Bill can be found blogging at Dr. Bill Tells Ancestor Stories.


© Dr. Bill Smith 2012

This article originally appeared in the June issue of The In-Depth Genealogist. Receive The In-Depth Genealogist free by subscribing HERE.