Genealogy is Good for Your Health

Smith family gathering in Brooklyn.

At a recent family gathering a cousin criticized my genealogy passion: “Why are you looking back? You should be looking forward,” she said.  As a genealogist, I gasped. But it took only a moment to re-group. Here was a teachable moment! Timing must be right in order for learning to happen. A simple conversation began. The dialogue that we had became the best way to explain how genealogy ie. family history could be good for your health–mind, body and soul!

Did you know that the more you know about health conditions and traits that run in your family, the healthier you can be? Genealogy is also good for your emotional, spiritual and psychological health! But, more on that in future postings.

Start talking: The best way to start your genealogy health journey is to start talking with the living. Today, even if you are adopted, you can find your family history by taking a DNA genealogy test to find relatives. At the reunion, we started by talking about family traits and cultural traditions passed down. One of the traits we discussed was left-handedness. Our mother was born left-handed. But because of her family’s cultural taboos, she was forced to become right-handed. And, three of her four children were born left-handed!  We also talked about other traits like hair texture, body types and ethnic mixtures found on both sides of our family.  All of these topics, especially ethnicity and cultural backgrounds are relevant to your health and should be discussed by your health care provider.

Ten Questions to Ask at Family Reunion:

  1. What traits run in our family? eg. dimples, twins, eyes or hair color, freckles, attached earlobes, toe lengths, artistic, musical, mechanical, athletic abilities.
  2. What health problems run in our family?
  3. How old were family members when diagnosed with an illness?
  4. What conditions caused death in our family? Who was the oldest in our family?
  5. Any pregnancy losses?
  6. Any birth defects, mental illness, or developmental disabilities?
  7. What is the ethnic make-up of our family?
  8. Where does our family come from? (country, regions)
  9. Lifestyle queries: smoking; where did family members work, list occupations; did they work on a farm, factory, outdoors; obesity or extremely thin; drug, alcoholism problems?
  10. Any allergies to foods or medication?

Tool Kit for Family Health History:

Here’s a link to a tool kit with important facts, ideas and activities to help you document your family history, published by Utah Department of Health:

Genealogy Resources: The following records can help you learn what your living relatives may not know about your family history:

  1. Death certificates-includes cause and date of death of an ancestor; may include diseases, conditions of concern during a specific historic era.
  2. Funeral Home Records – funeral programs, files might name relatives assisting and providing family information.
  3. Obituaries – checking old newspapers can net amazing details especially if there was an accident or a crime.
  4. US Census– check for age of parents, children born to older parents, large gaps between births; many relatives living together; certain occupations can impact health, like coal miners.
  5. Religious Records – and church bulletins also include clues about a specific community and the person’s health condition.

Oldest in the Family

My paternal great-great-great-grandmother, Tempe Burton, on porch w/ two mulatto daughters sitting w/Col. W.R. Stuart & wife, Lizzy. Tempe lived to 104 years old!

Who’s the oldest in your family? My husband and I met a group of baby boomers aboard a Natchez steamboat on the Mississippi River during our recent anniversary trip to Louisiana. It was obvious that they were on a family reunion trip. They all wore “Robinson Family” T-shirts. Our conversation naturally turned to –“Who was the oldest in their family/” and ‘How many generations could they trace?”

The feistiest lady in this African-American group said that she was the oldest on this trip at 78. She said that she could trace back to three generations. She also said that their oldest family member, great-Aunt Mamie Robinson, is 100 and lives in Georgia!

The friendly lady shared anecdotes about family as the others chimed in with affirmatives: “Old Auntie works in her garden everyday, cans all of her home-grown summer vegetables, and chops wood. She is what we call a ‘busy body.’ Folks drop in on her all day long. She especially likes the latest gossip. She tells funny stories too.  But Auntie always talks about hard work, whether folks had good manners and was ‘raised right’. ”

The lady explained that their family is spread out all over the globe now and that they had reunions in a variety of cities. “We’re the ‘old-school’ cousins. We have a tradition of coming to New Orleans for vacation since we were kids. So, here we are!” she said.

“Why do old people matter today?” I asked.  “Wisdom!” said the only man in the group. “Old people teach the young people their family history. Maybe they would have better sense if they knew what the earlier generations went through to survive!” said another spry boomer.

I believe that the oldest person in my family was Tempe Burton, a former slave. My genealogy buddy/cousin, Snow Fox Lawrence, shared an old newspaper clipping about our paternal great-great-great grandmother who lived to 104 in Ocean Springs, Miss!

Here is an obituary of my great-great grandmother Tempe Burton in a March 1925 Ocean Springs, Mississippi newspaper:

“Aunt Tempe Burton, the oldest person in Jackson County, died Sunday at the home of her son Alf Stewart. The funeral was held Monday afternoon and was largely attended by both white and colored friends. Tempe was said to be 104 years of age. She was an ex-slave and had made her home with the late Mrs. W.R Stuart for seventy years. When Mrs. Stuart was married, Aunt Tempe was given to her as a wedding gift and was Mrs. Stuart’s maid. When slavery was abolished she refused to leave her mistress and remained with her until the end. Mrs. Stuart died about two months ago.”

Who is the oldest person in your family? Where do/did they live?

I posed this question to new friends at a Blogging While Brown conference. Check out their amazing entries:

Miz Kp -“The oldest person in my family is my grand aunt. She was born in 1919. She is 94 and lives in Chesapeake, VA.”

April J. Cheatam Sands – “My great-grandmother lived to be 98 and died in 2006 in Wilmington, NC (born in 1907).”

Gina McCauley-  “I had a paternal great-grandmother that lived to 99. I have a cousin in Houston, TX that is 100+ year’s old. They do a story about her in the local news every year. My maternal grandmother lived until she was 93!”

Kahlil O. Haywood – “My grandmother is the oldest in my family. She’s 95.  She’s still alive. She’s from Panama, lives in Brooklyn.”

Lashuntrice Thestoryteller Bradley – “My great-grandmother is 86 and lives in Florida, born in Georgia.”

Alysia Christiani – “My paternal grandmother lived to 100. She was from Guyana, South America but died in Brooklyn, New York.”

Erica Kierulf – “My grandmother was born in Blue Fields, Nicaragua. Lived to 105. She resided in Chicago, IL.”

Deborah Smikle-Davis – “My wonderfully creative and inspiring paternal grandmother, Lillie Mae, lived to be 95. She resided in Lumberton, NC.”

Eva Greene Wilson – “Great-grandmother in Tobago lived to 104. I think she’d have lived longer if she hadn’t lost her sight and mobility. Being able to get up and down the hill to be “in people’s business” was what really kept her going.”

Who’s the oldest in your family? Do tell!