Monday, May 3, 2010
I have a somewhat 'manic' personality. Which is to say, that when I become interested in something, I tend to jump in with both feet, so to speak. When I bought my first touring bike, it wasn't long before I was going on tours, riding centuries, and piling up miles at the rate of thousands per year. I read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion all in one month. In the first year of our marriage (Yeah, I know. . .) Heck, once I started begetting children, I didn't stop until I had eight of them. So, you can see the full scope of my situation. It was back in the spring of 1986 that I was bitten by the genealogy bug. I'm not sure exactly what set it off - I recall my dad sending me a short account of our family history, which his aunt had compiled, and it was utterly fascinating to me. Of course, I could remember my grandparents, but Aunt Mildred (who was my grandfather's sister) had taken things several generations farther back than that, to a fellow who'd been born in 1780, only four years after the Declaration of Independence, in New York state (it turns out that the large bulk of the immediate-pre-statehood settlement of Michigan was from New York, the more-or-less direct result of the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825). This early ancestor had ten children (seven sons), and the fourth of those sons had three children, the youngest of whom left New York and came to Michigan. His oldest son was my great-grandfather, who died a decade or more before I was born, but I could recall seeing his name painted on the side of the barn on what had been his farm, next door to my grandfather's farm in rural Michigan. And of course, my dad had known his grandfather, and would occasionally tell us stories about him. I had a friend at work, and we often used to sit together in one or the other of our offices, talking about this or that or the other thing, on our lunch hours; he was quite a bit older than me (in fact, he was the father of a girl I'd known in college). So when my dad sent me the little hand-typed genealogy from Aunt Mildred, I showed it to him. And he just lit up. "Wonderful!" he exclaimed, and he began telling me about his recently-taken-up hobby of genealogy. When I told him that it all sounded quite interesting, he promised to take me with him the next time he went to the library to do some genealogical research on his lunch hour, which he did. At first, he just pointed me to the reels of microfilm for the US Census, and encouraged me to start by just documenting what I already knew. There was something fascinating about looking at those old census records, from 1880, or 1850, or even earlier, and seeing the names of my ancestors written there, and realizing that the page I was looking at represented a census taker standing on the front porch of my great-great-grandfather's house, talking directly to him (or, more likely, my great-great-grandmother). And it wasn't long before I'd branched out, and begun documenting other parts of our family than just the succession of fathers who all shared the surname that I still bear. It was amusing to find my great-grandmother in the census, at age 18, just a couple entries away from my 17-year-old great-grandfather, knowing that just a few years after that record was taken, they'd be married to each other; and also just to realize that they'd grown up in pretty close proximity to each other. There was a period of time when I was spending a fair bit of effort on cemeteries - if I knew that a particular ancestor had lived in such-and-such a town, but didn't know when they'd died, I could get a listing of the nearby cemeteries, and go looking for their gravestone, which would almost certainly tell me what I needed to know. Usually, I would plan out my cemetery visits as part of a trip we were already making; many of the cemeteries in question were not too terribly out-of-the-way on a trip to Chicago, for instance. I didn't think it was all that big a deal, but after a while, when we were on a road trip, the kids would point out the cemeteries we were driving past, and ask why we weren't stopping. Before long, I'd done all that I could (for the time being) with the census, and I'd graduated to the published genealogies, and the old town records. Several of my family lines, especially from my dad's mother, went back into New England; and New England town records - most towns in New England kept records of every birth, death, and marriage, all the way back to the founding of the town, usually in the 1600s - are an amazing storehouse of information, and in short order - within a year or two - I'd extended what we knew of our family tree, in several directions, and in several cases, 'back to the water's edge'. In a few cases, I was able to reach back across the ocean, and establish connections in 16th-century (or even earlier) England or Germany. In 1987 we planned out a vacation to upstate New York, so I could do a bit of on-site research (and check out some of the cemeteries in New York). As it turns out, the part of New York our family is from is very close to Cooperstown, so we could include a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame. And when I told my dad about it, he decided to do likewise, and he and Mom stayed at the same resort we did. Looking back, Jen still gets a wry chuckle from the way I sold that vacation to her - "We can go check out some cemeteries in New York! And visit the Baseball Hall of Fame!! And my parents are coming, too!!!" But we had a great time, even so (and I won't even mention the possibility that 3M may have been conceived on that trip). Those of you who recall my 'book posts' from last summer might recall that, at one point in my young life, I went on a bit of a James Michener binge. And doing genealogical research was a lot like making my own Michener novel (only 'in reverse'), for our family - tracking the progress of various of our ancestors, from New England to New York, to Ohio/Indiana, to Michigan, all in the context of the history that was happening around them. I found, for instance, that a couple brothers of one of my ancestors had been thrown in jail during the Revolution, as suspected Tory sympathizers. And apparently, they had been firm in their Loyalist convictions - after the war, they took their families and went to Canada. Which I learned when I was contacted by a distant cousin living in California, who shared my surname, who had traced his own ancestry back across Canada, where he'd stalled; and I could then connect him to the family in New York. Another of my ancestors (my 2g-grandfather, mentioned above) had left New York, and gone to live with his father's cousin in Indiana, in 1863, under circumstances that could look suspiciously like draft-dodging (which, of course, my own 'boomer' generation thinks we invented). . . When I searched for my birth-parents, the skills I'd honed doing genealogy came in really handy, looking through various public records and compiling the information I'd need to find them. And of course, once I'd found them, I had whole new chunks of family to track down (my birth-father's family was from Mississippi, and included a few slave-owners; which is something I'd hoped never to find, but alas. . .) Sometime in the early 90s, my duties to the 'production side' of the family tree made it nigh-unto-impossible for me to devote time to furthering the research effort, but when my dad retired, he took up where I'd left off, and has 'pushed things back' a bit further. Of course, now, much of the information that I'd gone to the library for, is available online, and in place of the large 3-ring binders that I'd spent years compiling, I now have a CD-ROM, and genealogy software to keep track of things for me. Aside from the brute facts of who all my ancestors were, and of their 'march through history', I think that genealogy also fosters a 'sense of continuity', and a certain kind of 'existential humility'. At the most basic, earthy level, it reinforces the point that each of us, and every person who has ever lived, is the product of an act of sexual intercourse between our birth-parents (I sidled up to this idea in this earlier post). None of us is here by our own choice; each of us exists because of the choices and actions of other people - a whole chain of them, in fact, stretching back beyond recorded history. And that reinforces the idea that our lives are not simply our own; we have duties (on an 'existential level') to both past and future generations. . . Simone Weil, I think, had some poignant things to say about 'the need for roots', and that resonates with me. I recall one of my uncles expressing a degree of astonishment that I, who am not even blood-related to my family, would dig in to the family tree so vigorously. A friend of mine, a psychologist, told me that he thought I was subconsciously searching for my birth-parents (and, given the timing of how things turned out, he may even have been right). But honestly, it's not so mysterious as all that - it's my family; it's where we came from, and how we got to where we are today. And it's utterly fascinating. . .