I have long been interested in family history, which I consider to mean much more than standard genealogy. I am interested in exploring how my ancestors were affected by, and maybe affected, the course of events in local and regional history during their lifetimes. Their experiences shaped their choices, which in turned shaped who I am.
My mom and others before her have done a lot of work in assembling the several branches of our family tree. We know well the journeys our English and German ancestors made across the ocean and across the growing United States to finally settle in Minnesota. The one branch that hadn’t been explored was my paternal grandfather’s French-Canadian and Ojibwe ancestry. These ancestors had a background and lifestyle similar to Canada’s Metis. We have always believed our ancestors in this line were involved in the fur trade, but had no evidence of this past.
Many people with similar backgrounds have long been frustrated by the lack of information available on their forebears. Their family stories were lost as federal policies of the 19th and early 20th centuries nearly destroyed Ojibwe culture. The voyageurs and traders, meanwhile, were here to exploit the resources with little thought of their legacy. Marriages between Ojibwe women and French-Canadian, Scottish and other European men during the fur trade were seldom formal, and rarely recorded.
But now tools such as Google and Ancestry.com allow us to piece together disparate information to obtain at least a partial record of the peoples who met and married in the wilds of Canada and the old Northwest Territory of the U.S. A wide range of information is available on-line, from Indian census data to Catholic Church records to even journals and diaries.
Using these tools, I’ve constructed a rough chronological record of my metis family’s journeys in and around what is now Minnesota. This record parallels the development of Minnesota, from the old Northwest Ordinance to Territory status and eventually statehood. My family’s history also traces the evolution of relations between the Ojibwe and the British, French and American traders and government officials they encountered during the 19th century.
I am fascinated by this history, and am exploring ways to write about it. Do I write a series of narratives about my family that simply chronicle the main events and places? Or do I attempt to frame their story in an historical novel? Some of both?