I’m not sure when this whole ancestry thing became an obsession. I probably should have realized I’d gone too far when my own children, my own wife, got sick and tired of hearing me tell dinner-table stories about my ancestors. I still can’t understand why they aren’t interested — aren’t these their relatives too? Maybe the turning point was when I started spending hard-earned money to hire genealogical experts in far-flung places, rather than wasting my own precious time with my feeble, literal brain trying to fathom relational data bases for nights on end. “Honey, do you know it’s after midnight,” my wife would often inform me, betraying concern about my ability to make a living the next day.
Or maybe it was when I started using my ancestors’ actions to foolishly interpret my own behavior. It’s probably an unsafe bet that, just because my great grandfather once laced bear meat with cinnamon, I can’t cook; or that flying makes me nervous because several relatives I never knew died in plane crashes; or that just because my Puritan ancestor hated Quakers I’m somehow intolerant of religion. Each time I uncover a new moral transgression by an ancient relative I reluctantly see a little bit of myself in the person. I wonder, How many generations must pass before you can be absolved of your ancestor’s transgressions?
I probably should have seen that I was in too deep when I started making pilgrimages to the forgotten places where my ancestors lived, to walk the grass that covered their bones, to pass through the streets and hallways where they once lived, to turn up the public records they had often left behind. That’s when things get strange — when you know enough about an ancient relative that their presence in the parlor of an old home, or in a grave under your feet, feels palpable. You see their face, and you want to ask questions. You know how they died, even though you never knew them when they lived. Your tempted to leave flowers.
It was probably a little bit of all of the above. All I know is that obsession has left me with an expanding pile of information that wants to find the light of a publishing day. Otherwise, no one may hear the stories. And they certainly won’t be passed on from my family dinner table. Who wants to hear that their relative shipped a boatload of freed slaves to Haiti to start a colony and many died along the way. “I hope you don’t use our family vacation to tell your brothers and sisters about their ancestors,” my oldest son recently told me, trying to protect his cousins from the awful fate that had befallen him: having to concern himself with the dead when all he cares about is living his young life. “That would be unfair–you will have a captive audience.”
The project started out innocently enough. I merely wanted to confirm some of the often bizarre stories my parents and grandparents had told me at family events, typically after a few drinks. Was it true that when Jimmy Filor’s plane crashed his relatives showed up to collect his jewelery? Did my great great grandmother, after her husband died, really live with his brother? It was hard to recall the salacious details. Key names and exact relations were routinely left out of these stories, leaving this journalist, working without a notepad, hopelessly confused. Frankly, it’s hard for me to remember anything for any length of time unless I’ve written it down.
Thanks to the Internet and some investigation skills, I’ve managed to learn much more about my ancestors than anyone ever knew, or wanted to know. It’s amazing how much ancestry information is publicly available — everything from birth and death records, to academic treatises, to other family histories. A remarkable number of old newspapers have been digitized. That certainly helps in the search for information when you’ve got family that bordered on public figures. I remember my grandmother telling me that the private life of her parents was continually, and annoyingly, publicized in the newspapers.
I found new reports of a San Francisco society matron fond of giving home-made dolls as tea-party favors whom the Call described as French down to her “finely polished fingertips,” a self-made frontiersman who built the building used to hang the infamous Henry Plummer’s Montana road agents; a cruel religious hypocrite, Hatevil Nutter, who got his jollies seeing Puritan women whipped; or a great uncle who was mysteriously gunned down in the streets of Manhattan in the 1950 when his uncle, the city judge, was trying racketeering cases.
I’ve learned that everyone has a story, whether it made its way into the newspapers or not. Some relatives may achieve fame or notoriety, but the people no one ever knew about are, to me, more interesting. It’s more intriguing to piece together the life of my great grandfather, a Scottish immigrant in the 1920, by trying to figure out the movie theaters in Edinburgh where he ran the projector or the roadside hotel in Florida where he took the family vacation in the 1940s, than it is to chronicle the already well-documented life of a great grandfather who helped piece together the Southern Pacific railroad. It’s a bigger challenge to figure out why a pipefitter uncle mysteriously went to Brazil than how a distant relative rose to be Secretary of State of the Confederacy.
Three years into this project, I sometimes feel as though it will take a lifetime. The past is like an expanding universe; the unknown grows larger with every fact you learn, not unlike the family pedigree chart that expands each time you add a new generation. My research efforts, conducted during middle age when the brain has lost some sharpness, would have been helped by paying more attention during high school history class. It would have been easier to grasp the significance of Allied sea battles in the South Pacific; plumb the murky political and religious relationships between England, Scotland, and Ireland; and appreciate the economic forces behind Westward Expansion.
Doing ancestral research is not unlike piecing together a large jigsaw puzzle. When you find a piece that fits, like a critical date of birth in a church or government record, others suddenly fall into place. Now you can draw in a church record that lists the names of parents. The Internet cloud is a real rainmaker. It allows you to link up with very distant relatives you may have otherwise never known, people with whom you may share one relative 150 years ago.
Close relatives aid and abet my passion. Once word spread that I was on this quest, they started clearing out closets and attics and sending me things, relieved that they wouldn’t have to do the work or keep the records. I now have in my possession my great grandfather’s Yale college yearbook, complete with his tickets to shows. I’m in proud possession of a union card belonging to my grand father, Hugh Simmers, who died before I was born. I have a signed copy of William Boyce Thompson’s Bible.
I’ve learned that relatives leave things behind on purpose. They want to leave a trail that future generations may follow. Great grandfather J.E. Thompson paid an architect to brand his initials in the homes that he built and sold to Bisbee, Ariz. miners on the installment plan. J.R. Boyce left a long letter to his grandchildren documenting his family history, at least what he could remember of it. A Boner family plot in a forgotten Missouri cemetery reveals deceased children who missed the census-taker’s count.
I’ve developed an appreciation for footnotes. It’s appalling how much history is just plain wrong, even the stuff that’s written down. Three census-takers gave three different birth years for Marie Gingras, who may not have wanted anyone to know how old she really was. It’s not clear how William Boyce Thompson died. His official paid biography would have you believe the cause was complications brought on by a stroke. But it may have been complications brought on my fat-reduction surgery, according to oral history passed down within the arboretum he endowed.
This genealogy thing is like a fraternity; most people you meet along the way are eager to help. People are always the best sources; they may have already done much of the work sifting through the facts and can point you in the right direction. Networking helped me identify the location of an ancient uncle’s grave in rural Virginia. It took me to an Arizona museum with key pictures that pieced together an ancient remodeling project. It revealed a potential explanation for the mysterious death of an uncle in the streets of Manhattan.
I don’t expect outsiders to care so much about the lives of the ancestors I’ve discovered. What I’m hoping people appreciate is the discoveries that led to these stories. That’s the fun part, the part that keeps you going. So much of everyone’s history is now out there for for the learning through myriad publicly available resources.