Why spend hours on the Internet to find your ancestors?
Last week, I sat down with a friend who is helping me complete my application for membership into the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. She was fascinated, and it wasn’t even her own family. Hunched over the keyboard, fingers flying, she scurried from site to site, eyes glittering, totally focused, asking questions, demanding answers. Who was my father? My grandfather? When were they born? Died?
I had no idea and couldn’t answer most of her questions. The questions I could answer, it seemed, were quite incorrect. She was thrilled to be working on what, to her, was a mystery. I had run into so many frustrating road blocks that I was numb, immune to her excitement. To me, it was nothing but work—table-pounding, teeth-grinding, scream-inducing, infuriating frustrating work!
How do they do it? Or WHY?
As a historian I can certainly understand a love of history, and a love of the past, and an interest in our own ancestors. Several years ago, a friend and colleague was standing in an airport check-in line returning from Great Britain. A young man standing behind her asked what she had been doing in London. When she said she had been researching at the archives, he was horrified. “How boring!” he said. She assured him it had been wonderful. True, it can be. But it can also be frustrating.
We aren’t the first ones to study our Genealogy. The early Spanish were careful about tracing lineages. Spaniards had to be able to trace their ancestry back to the conquest of Granada in 1492 in order to be considered noble. Far more important, however, they had to be able to show they had no Jewish or Moorish blood. In actuality, many of the Spaniards who came to the New World, in particular those who settled in Monterrey, and later Texas, were Jewish—Conversos or converts. They came north to avoid the Inquisition and the chance of being burned at the stake for heretical beliefs. I suspect our family was among that group.
During the years after the Spanish conquest, unlike the North American settlers, the Catholic Church encouraged marriage between the native peoples and the Spanish. They did, however, keep careful track of all the marriages. Within a few generations, the church organized the mixtures and assigned names to identify 64 different variations. The European artists, fascinated by the supposedly different “castas,” painted beautiful vignettes of the husband, wife and child combinations.
In the United States, one hundred years after the settlements in New Spain, many of the early arrivals settled in colonies where only people of their own religious preferences were welcome. Racism was alive and well from the very earliest settlement of the country. Quakers were burned at the stake in New England and the only good Indian was a dead Indian. In Maryland, supposedly established to protect Catholics, the Protestants soon changed the laws so that freedom of religion meant only the Protestant religion.
Once the country was well on its way, the arrivals from Europe chose to settle in ghettos or neighborhoods made up of people of their own nationalities. Parents were suitably scandalized and horrified when a son or daughter began consorting with those “others.” Often they outright prohibited intermarriage with those from other nationalities or other neighborhoods. Love being as nonsensical and illogical as it is, however, sons and daughters flouted their parents’ dictums, and the country soon became an amalgam of mixtures.
Now-a-days, with all the advertising on TV, everyone can trace their DNA. Finding out that one is not German but Scottish means changing from lederhosen to kilts, or so the ad claims. Since most people in the United States are a convoluted mixture of a dozen different nationalities, one would have to keep an array of costumes on hand that would beggar a billionaire just to keep up with all the possible permutations. And never mind attending all the heritage festivals celebrating the Scottish or German or French or Czech or whatever ancestors. No one in the US today gets to be pure anything.
Anyway, because of the DNA testing, there has been a growing interest in genealogy. There have always been those who enjoy lording it over others because of their descent from the first settlers at Jamestown or stepping off the Mayflower onto Plymouth Rock. Now, however, it is more curiosity over the stories of our ancestors. And there are some fascinating stories of over-land travel, or battles during the Civil war, or gunfights in the Old West, or murders in Chicago. The joy of Genealogy is that you are invariably going to uncover some really fascinating stories. You will also find mortifying pecadillos committed by your ancestors. Get used to it. Enjoy them. Everyone has them.
Many of the libraries today have beautifully appointed genealogy rooms. We are fortunate here in Huntsville to have a dedicated genealogist, Johnnie Jo Dickenson. Over the years (close to thirty now, I think), she has collected and put together a genealogy room in our local library that offers help and instruction to those like me who wander in without a clue. And she not only helps, she insists on getting everyone who steps into her domain involved in tracing their genealogy.
Of course, everyone is familiar with the Mormon Church archives. They have laboriously copied and shared hundreds of Catholic church records and other genealogical documents on-line. Their intent is to get everyone into Heaven. But it still isn’t easy.
But beware. It is a rabbit hole that truly rivals Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Thanks to the internet, there are a hundred different sources that can be accessed. Today, there are not only census records. Now there are cemetery records and deed records and wills and names mentioned in journal articles. And one leads to another. And if you don’t find it here, you can look there, or over yonder or beyond even that. The path is endless.
What becomes addictive is when you actually find something. Like a jigsaw puzzle, once you locate a date or a document that you can fit into your puzzle, it is exhilarating. It is so thrilling because a picture of the lives of your ancestors begins to form. Once you know the paths to follow, it’s hard to quit.
As a historian, I do recommend that all you genealogists out there get to know the history of the time period. This should not be just a list of “begats.” Like the listings in the Bible, there is nothing more boring than knowing that “So and So begat so and so” without any context. What were your ancestors facing? Wars, perhaps, or floods, or victories or great tragedies. What was going on at the time? Make sure you understand what influenced their lives.
Thanks to the Internet, even more amazing today are the many others out there looking for the same family info you are. You never know what connections you may be able to make to other relatives you didn’t even know you had. With more and more people posting their genealogies on the internet, it is possible to make contact with not just relatives, but to family. And they will have more of the clues that you need.
So, like it or not, it’s time to start researching