Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, July 15, 2016

Freeway Genealogy

During the past week or so, I have had ample time to think about freeways after driving a couple of thousand miles on some of the best and worst in existence. But by nature, I relate almost everything to genealogy and I began to realize that my journeys across the northeastern part of the U.S. and Canada were an almost perfect analogy for the various levels of genealogical research.

I realized that almost all the genealogists I knew were essentially "freeway genealogists." They were only interested in getting results (going to a specific location) and could care less about the scenery. Actually, the scenery on the freeways in the east is a lot like superficial genealogy, mostly trees and little else. Whether I am driving in Canada or New York State or Maine or wherever, if I am on the freeway my view is exactly the same: trees. I started to realize that trees were about all most of the genealogical researchers were interested in. I started to see some dramatic contrasts when we got off of the freeway and drove on U.S. Route 1 and Highway 1 in Canada.

The contrast is about the same with the freeway-type of research and the U.S. Route 1 type of research. Freeway research is superficial and as long as names are produced it is all that matters and the quicker the better. Highway 1 research is vastly different. You have to take it slow and easy and be ready for all kinds of twists and turns. Life on the back roads is full of surprises and the scenery is remarkable. Every turn in the twisting roads brings you another dramatic vista. I had to stop frequently to take photos and to really look at some of the dramatic views of mountains, oceans and plains. The same thing happens when you get off the genealogical freeway and start to look at the details of how, when and what happened to your ancestors. You begin to view their lives and the lives of those around them at the time they lived in an entirely new light. It may take you a lot longer time and you might have to settle for a little less ground covered, but what you do see will produce the memories of a lifetime.

One example. We were visiting Acadia National Park on the Bay of Fundy in Maine. We had driven to the top of Cadilac Mountain and were trying to keep from being blown away by the wind gusts. One of the locals just started talking to us and telling us about how much they loved the Park, but that the best place to go was miles away in another part of the Park called Schoodic Point. He was enthusiastic about the place and we decided to take his advice and drive for another hour or so to get to the place he described. We left the crowded, main part of the Park and soon entered an enchanted and beautiful world of wind and waves and rocks. We were transfixed. We could have stayed there for days. It was one of the most remarkably beautiful places on earth. But for the unsolicited comments made by this anonymous person, we would have missed one of the best experiences of our whole trip.

Now if that isn't like genealogy, I don't know what is. Just as with this beautiful rocky shoreline, I see the beauty and harmony in my searches for my own ancestors and those of others. I try hard to convey this beauty to others, but I think they all want to stay on the freeway and getting off and losing the fast food and in and out convenience of real research seems like too much of a bother. Here is my advice: get off the genealogical freeway and start enjoying the back roads of your own and your ancestors' lives. Come with me to the winding and somewhat slower roads of the back country.

For those who know me well, we did get so far out that we were driving on dirt roads even in the civilized East.


  1. Hi, James,

    I found this analogy quite interesting, and, as a native of Maine, especially enjoyed your example of Acadia National Park and Schoodic Point.

    However, also as a native of Maine, I was somewhat alarmed at the apparent relocation of Acadia National Park from Hancock County, Maine, situated on the Gulf of Maine, to "the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick" -- roughly 100 miles down east from Hancock County!

    Now, as a genealogist I know that boundaries do change, and that during the War of 1812 the British did occupy much of eastern Maine, including Hancock County. However, I feel compelled to point out that Acadia National Park was created over a century later, and has never, to my knowledge, been located in New Brunswick. Hopefully, it's still in Maine, and you just got turned around on those back roads and thought you'd crossed the border already. :-)

    And yes, it is one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

    The Down East Genealogist

  2. Yes, I do manage to get confused especially when I am writing late at night and after driving and walking all day. Thanks for the explanation of my brain freeze.