Heritage and identity

Letter H: Eighth of twenty-six posts in the April 2016 Blogging From A to Z Challenge. Wish me luck and please join me on the journey!

Heritage can be a powerful contributor to identity. Learning about a family’s history creates bonds with people and places, provides new perspectives, and nurtures a growing sense of self — as I have learned from exploring and writing about my ancestors’ lives.

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Mulberry Bend in lower Manhattan (1894). Heritage can be a powerful contributor to identity. Discovering that my Italian ancestors survived this rough neighborhood — before later raising their huge family in upstate New York — brought home their experience and their strength against adversity. Image: NYPL Digital Collections

Molly’s Canopy was launched during re-enactments of the U.S. Civil War’s battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, which my Union Army ancestor Arthur Bull fought in.

I knew details on paper about my paternal great, great grandfather’s life from his military pension file and other sources.

But standing in the clouds of gun smoke beside those battlefields — where Arthur risked his life in the struggle to end slavery and preserve the Union — made his legacy a proud and palpable part of my life.

A similar transformation happened when I learned that my maternal great, great grandparents Antonio and Antoinette (Del Negro) Curcio, from Italy, were married in New York City in 1880 and lived for a time at Mulberry Bend — then a crowded and dangerous spot in lower Manhattan’s notorious Five Points area.

I had seen the movie Gangs of New York, as well as the photos of back alleys taken by reformer Jacob Riis. But discovering that my Italian ancestors had survived in that rough neighborhood, before later raising their huge family in upstate New York, brought home their experience and their strength against adversity.

This process has repeated itself many times with other ancestors. Layer by layer, like a painting being coaxed to completion, their lives and stories have added to my sense of how I arrived here and who I am in the world. And this can happen for you, too.

Cast an eye over your family tree. Is there an ancestor who jumps out at you? One whose compelling story you want to learn more about? Spend some time researching and writing about that ancestor. You may be surprised by what you find — and by how your heritage adds dimension to your identity.

Tomorrow: Including and honoring childless relatives. Please stop back.

© 2016 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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6 thoughts on “Heritage and identity”

  1. Love researching my family history as I am an avid history fan. Makes it all more real knowing that this cousin or grandparent was in this battle or on this ship etc.

    x Joy (The Joyous Living)

    1. Making it all more real — you have captured the essence of what I was trying to convey with this post. Have you considered writing up some of your research, telling the ancestral stories you have discovered? I am sure it would be a fascinating read. Good luck with the challenge and thanks for visiting!

  2. Well written! I never realized how researching ancestors would change my views on my heritage so much. I really enjoyed this piece. Looking forward to the rest of the alphabet.

    1. Thanks, Fran. The identity transformation is a subtle process and usually well underway before you realize it is happening.

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