The Unrecorded Past

Writing family history would be a heck of a lot easier if our forebears just thought a bit more of themselves. Those of us related to prominent individuals are lucky: The big cheeses of the world tend to leave more traces. They’re more likely to have thought their lives were worth recording for posterity. The little cheeses, not so much.

True, once in a while a non-royal, non-presidential family comes along that’s addicted to writing letters or keeping diaries, like the Paston family in 15th-century England.

But you don’t find Paston types growing on just any family tree.

And once in a while something comes along that is so big, and so universal, it sparks a correspondingly big and universal desire to bear witness. (Think of the Civil War era!)

Still, in between monumental military conflicts and the March 1887 coal invoice are all sorts of events that don’t rate a separate chapter in the history books. Nonetheless, they leave you wishing you could picture the part played by your long-ago relatives. File them under notable but not epochal, I suppose.

I’d love to know what my Capital District forebears were up to during these happenings, for example:

• The unrest at the Watervliet Arsenal in West Troy, N.Y. an outgrowth of the infamous 1863 draft riots in New York City.

• The great Troy fire of 1862.

• The Hudson River floods of 1913.

• And I wonder what they thought of Kate Mullaney, who organized the Troy laundresses into a force demanding better working conditions for the women and girls in the collar factories.

What history do you wish you could recover from your family tree?