“Peoples is peoples”, I said as we moved through the Q&A session of Shauna Hick’s recent presentation “Finding Your Ancestors in Asylums”. I could see agreement in the faces and body language of those assembled as I went on to acknowledge that our forebears are much more than names and dates. They could be complex, multi layered personalities, who held values, espoused opinions and lived out morals that we may struggle to understand or are very different from our own.
An intriguing example of such a progenitor is the subject of family tree chart #11. Industrialist, engineer, inventor and philanthropist, the focus of this chart does not immediately stand out from among his many relatives. Hidden in plain sight among six generations of family members, the entrepreneur, early motor racing enthusiast and husband and father is one of nine members of his extended family who had been given the same first name. A small, hand drawn asterisk above his entry and a short paragraph below the main tree, draw attention to the chart’s ultimate purpose.
The chart is designed primarily to show the ancestry and close relatives of Henry Ford the industrialist. Aside from his own son and grandchildren and the children of his brothers and sisters, only his grandfather’s brothers Samuel, George, Henry and Robert and their children are shown, together with such of their descendants as are mentioned in this particular volume. It should be noted that most of the children of Samuel and George married and became parents, and that during our Henry Ford’s youth and early manhood he had in the Dearborn area alone two cousins once removed and a second cousin who bore the same name as he.
Henry Ford, American businessman, was born in 1863 and died in 1947 in Michigan. With his wife Clara formerly Bryant, through their only child, a son Edsel, Ford was a grandfather of four by 1925. While not the inventor of the motor vehicle, Ford, as a result of assembly line processes, made affordable cars available to the general public. Mass production of inexpensive goods and an age of consumerism were key to the Ford company’s success.
Henry Ford himself could reasonably be seen to be a complex character. He instigated his organisation’s “Social Department”, a well resourced section responsible for ensuring that staff, both professionally and in their personal lives, conducted themselves in an approved manner. Controversial, and considered at the time as intrusive, Ford in later times moved away from a patriarchal view of industry. An interesting example of the way in which our ancestor’s opinions could change and develop over time.
Further, they could hold, at the same time, views that appear to us to be diametrically opposed to each other. Ford, as our example, held very strong pacifist ideals and was critical of those who financed military action. He funded a peace ship that sailed to Europe with the specific aim of ending WW1. When, however, America entered the Great War, Ford’s company became a significant supplier of weapons, particularly airplane engines and anti submarine boats.
|Grand Cross of the German Eagle|
Philosophically, spiritually, Ford was known to adhere to the Episcopalian faith, be a high level Free Mason and was strongly anti Semitic, to the extent that he undertook business with Nazi Germany. He was awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, a medal given to foreigners sympathetic to Nazism. Adolf Hitler praised Ford in “Mein Kampf” and the industrialist’s own anti Semitic views were expressed in interviews and, during the 1920s, the weekly newspaper he published. At the same time his company was known for employing African Americans, females and those with disabilities when this was far from common.
As family historians, we focus strongly on obtaining, sorting and displaying the genealogical data we collect and rightly so. However, our complex, fascinating, intriguing forebears have stories just waiting to be uncovered and for us to interpret and attempt to understand them. What tales of your ancestors, funny, sad, tragic, moving, do you have to share?