Economic History and Genealogy

Tonight’s post will be brief. I am lying in a hos­pi­tal bed alter­nately dic­tat­ing into my cell phone and tap­ping text on its screen. I trust I will be home tomor­row, and feel­ing bet­ter every day thereafter.

As I pre­fer read­ing to tele­vi­sion, and as I thought to bring my Kin­dle, I gave been read­ing two books that have been on my mind of late: Vil­helm Moberg’s The Emi­grants and John Ken­neth Galbraith’s The Great Crash of 1929.

Nei­ther, of course, is a cheery book. Moberg writes of the pri­va­tions and famines in Swe­den that sparked emi­gra­tion from that coun­try to North Amer­ica; Gal­braith writes of the crash of 1929, its causes and its aftermath.

Both books, how­ever are impor­tant for geneal­o­gists. They remind us of the times in which our ances­tors lived. Dif­fi­cul­ties such as the recur­ring Swedish crop fail­ures and  peri­odic spec­u­la­tive mar­ket bub­bles are what pushed our ances­tors to cross great oceans for oppor­tu­nity, nay even survival.

Even within the United States, events such as the Florida land spec­u­la­tion of the 1920s or the crash of rail­road spec­u­la­tion in 1873 caused finan­cial hard­ships that some­times made our ances­tors itin­er­ant. (Both of these events are briefly described in Galbraith’s book.)

I plan to add to my bag of genealog­i­cal tricks a time­line I can set against migra­tion pat­terns in my research to see if I can learn more about what might have fueled a desire to move west and ever west. This prac­tice, whether or not it leads to spe­cific rev­e­la­tions about par­tic­u­lar ances­tors, will no doubt prove an impor­tant method of putting my research sub­jects in the con­text of their times. I am look­ing for­ward to it, and to get­ting out of this bed.

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