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

Thursday, December 6, 2018

What do you really know about your ancestors?

One of my main activities is helping individuals discover their ancestral past. I have found that this is best done on a one-on-one basis sitting in front of their computer (or one in a Family History Center) and systematically working backward in time looking at what is already recorded. Of course, I do find people all the time who have nothing recorded, not even their own parents. But usually, there is a place to start talking about who these people were who are called our ancestors. Almost uniformly, unless the person has been working on their own genealogy for some time, the person knows next to nothing about anyone beyond their own parents and from time to time, I find people who do not know anything about their parents, even their parents' names.

Why are so many people disconnected from their ancestral heritage?

My early years were spent in a very small town and I had lots of "relatives" that included uncles, aunts, cousins, and various other people who were supposed to be related to me in some way. As new people showed up at our house to visit or to talk to my parents, I was told that they were related some way. But until I got personally interested in genealogy, I really did not know who these people were or how they were related to me. Of course, there was always someone who could rattle off all the relationships, but I didn't understand who all these people really were.

I was married with a number of children before I began to unravel these relationships. In my case, because of our religious and cultural background, once I focused on the relationships, everything fell into place and I could visualize the relationships. But going to a family reunion can still be a challenge. When you get dozens of people together, all of whom are supposed to be related to you in some way, it can be a real challenge to keep everyone straight especially if you don't see or associate with these relatives on a regular basis.

But now let's move back a bit. One question I always ask prospective genealogists is the names of their grandparents and great-grandparents. If those names appear on an online family tree, they can read me the names, but otherwise, very few people know the complete names of all their great-grandparents and can tell me where they lived and where they were born without looking at some reference provided to them by someone else. If I move back one more generation, these people are totally lost.

If someone knows about a grandparent or great-grandparent, or even further back, it is usually the "surname line" that is well known. For example, if I quiz them about the identities of their great-grandmother's parents, they are totally lost. People usually do not know even the maiden names of grandparents.

Now, before you start getting all huffy about how you can name all of your ancestors individually back to Adam, I would suggest we go a little bit further and ask some more questions.

The crucial questions I always ask is where did these people live? When I ask this question, I am searching to find out exactly where they lived not just that they came from Georgia or Michigan or somewhere back East. The beginning of identifying your ancestors is learning about who they were but the beginning of learning about them and properly and accurately identifying them is learning about exactly where they lived. Yes, I do mean exactly down to the house or farm or tenement or village or town.

I start out with questions about where each of the ancestors was born. When I get a vague or missing answer, I know where to start in helping the person really discover their ancestors. Interestingly, many people get frustrated with my questions and say something like, well, its all written down right here or my mother knew all that so why are you asking me these questions? I guess the basic reason is that they are the same questions I had to ask myself many years ago when I got started.

Let me give an example. My surname family has a strong identity and tradition going back to my 3rd great-grandfather, John Tanner. I continually meet people who identify me as a relative by my surname. But if I ask these same people to tell me who their grandparents were going back to John Tanner, they cannot do so. They say all they know is that they are descendants of John Tanner and that usually ends the conversation.

Now, why is all this important? Because once some genealogists get started, all they do is collect names. I frequently hear about a genealogist who has added thousands of names to their family tree or even some who add thousands of names every year. How is this possible other than by collecting names like you would look at billboards on a freeway? Can you possibly remember or know who these people are as they flash by? How can you possibly know the accuracy of all these entries? Of course, you could just assume that everyone with your surname is related to you and add them willy-nilly to your family tree, but is this really genealogy? Is genealogy really a competition sport where the winner is the person with the most names listed?

So here we have two extremes: people who don't know who their parents are and people who have tens of thousands of "relatives" listed in extensive family trees. But guess what? They both have exactly the same problem. They know little or nothing about their ancestors.

Then there is the common response to this issue: why do we care? Why is family important?

I have spent a long time thinking about the answers to both of these questions and I have come to the conclusion that given our brief mortal existence here on this earth, family is one of the few things that really is important. Granted, I am a genealogist. Granted, I have spent a good portion of my life learning about my own ancestors. Granted, not everyone has the inclination, time, or cares to find out about their family but even if you just a soon not know about your family, you are still part of that family and they are a part of you and will come a time to all of us when all that really matters is our family.

If you don't know about your own family, fortunately, the tools to find your family are now abundantly available and they include DNA testing, online family trees that connect families, and many other wonderful resources.

I guess, when it is all said and done, that I keep going doing my own research and helping others with theirs for the simple reason that as I connect with my own family and see others connect with their family, I see how it changes our lives and how we view the world. Ultimately, we find that we are all related and that differences in race, religion, politics and other things really don't matter. We are all related.

But it does help to understand how we are related.


  1. One way to get better acquainted with your ancestors is to write a biographical sketch or family history. Many of us attach old biographies from past family reunions as Memories in FamilySearch. There's nothing wrong with that, but have you noticed how rarely these have been updated? Or corrected? With all the additional documentation that's available now, we can do so much more.

    I decided I wanted to know more about a pioneer ancestor who had emigrated with her two older sisters. One of the reasons I knew little was that she had died before her thirtieth birthday. I found previous attempts unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, but yet some valuable information had been preserved. Rather than write about her, I decided to make her father, William Bocock, the subject as a means of capturing information about her as well as her sisters. Their father had been a tollgate keeper on the British turnpike system and he had been left a widower twice. So I decided to do a deep dive on the places they had lived. I was actually able to find images of the toll cottages they had lived in: one postcard, several watercolors in a municipal collection, photographs in another local history, and a photo on Flickr from a turnpike buff. I used local, social, and religious history -- the latter helped explain why their records were found both in the established church and in non-conformist sources. I was already a convert to 'exhaustive' research, but I could certainly see its value in illuminating the lives of these ancestors.

    Most family history guides tell you how to do genealogical research, but I found an excellent guide to writing family histories, You Can Write Your Family History by Sharon Debartolo Carmack. It explained how to construct a family history narrative beginning with vital events and querying those facts while looking for personal challenges and family struggles. I highly recommend it. It was out of print for awhile, but it's been available for several years now.

    1. Thanks for all the additional information and the explanation.

  2. Makes me very grateful for the letters and diaries our family's ancestors (from aunts back to 3-greats-grands) wrote. And for the succeeding ancestors who kept them and passed them on to my generation. We have stories of the Civil War years in Deep Creek, Virginia. We know what a "bounder" the one great-great-great uncle was. We have stories about the 3-greats grandfather who was a pacifist and a "character". Now it is up to us, the current generation to record our stories . . . may they have some merit for the next generations.