Genealogy: It’s Not Always about the Past

Part One of a Multi-Part Series

This series of articles is dedicated to my nephew and anyone else who might have considered researching their family history, but who have been stymied by the process, overwhelmed by the enormity of the project, or who did not know how or where to start. (10-15 minute read)

I recently was contacted by a nephew asking for help in he needed to do to get started doing his genealogy. His young son is asking questions about their family. I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked for advice on how to find information on family history and lineage.

His problem? He was raised as an only child, although he has half brothers he has never met or even heard about until talking to me. He is part of a family who are not really helpful in giving him information about the rest of his family. His father has difficulty talking about his marriages and his other children, whom he loves dearly but lost through traumatic divorces.

Interestingly, I was contacted last year by the daughter of one of these estranged sons for the very same reason. This seems to be a frequent problem for many of the people I have helped with their genealogy over the years.

The fact is, families in today’s modern world are plagued by a host of traumatic problems that can cause emotional or physical separation from their family:

  • Divorce
  • Death of a close family member
  • Traumatic loss of partners/parents/siblings/children to disease, alcohol or drug use, or violence (whether domestic or from forces outside the family)
  • Criminal activity and/or victimization
  • Unexpected and/or unwanted pregnancies
  • Abandonment or adoption, or the forcible removal of children their parents’ custody

Bad life choices can cause permanent rifts between family members. And no family is immune to this “disease.” Dysfunctional families occur in every tax bracket throughout the world.

Families are fluid in this day and age, and family disfunction is an extremely common problem. Sadly, many of us treat badly the people who love us best and trust us the most. Often we treat total strangers with much more understanding and respect than we do those who should be closest to us. These are people who are worthy of our love simply by having been born into our family sharing our DNA and our most formative childhood experiences.

Yet there are no guarantees that people in the same family will all get along. The individuals born into families are not alike. In fact, there are usually huge differences in personalities, which can cause friction in a family. And many people who experience physical or emotional trauma, often lash out at those to whom we should be the most kind, driving them away.

Because these rifts in our families are often difficult or impossible to repair, we have a tendency to turn our backs on the people who have hurt us most. Although this is an extremely isolating reaction to our family problems, it can be even more so for our children when we start creating our own families at a distance from their aunts, uncles, cousins and most especially grandparents.

Yet, all of us want to be a part of a family that loves and supports us. Human beings are social animals and living in clan groups is instinctual. It’s a part of our DNA. And it should be no great surprise that many of us, faced with a life alone, emotionally if not physically far from family or friends, find it difficult to function and endure the pain inflicted on us throughout our lives. Without a support system, many of us simply give up. Though we may not actually commit suicide by actually performing that act, we often turn to alcohol or drugs to help ease the pain of living life alone, which frequently brings about the same result.

Being raised an only child far from extended family by a father who never ever talked about his family gave me an intense desire to know more about where I came from. I learned that I had a half-brother when I was still very young, but I was nearly 18 when I finally met him. My mother passed away from a lifelong heart condition when I was six and her siblings took care of me — not always happily — for nearly a year before my father remarried and brought me home to live with him.

Unfortunately, my father chose very unwisely in selecting a new mother for me and the two of us suffered through a lot of emotional upheaval caused by this woman before I finally chose to leave home at 17. My father was busy trying to earn a living and he did not have a clue how to resolve the situation. He later told me that he was afraid that I would suffer more from being from a broken home than whatever I suffered at the hands of the woman he had brought into our lives.

Of course, he did not really know what I was being subjected to while he worked 12 to 14 hour days. I left home early because I could not tolerate the pain of living in a situation that had me on the verge of suicide several times. I was lucky in that I had a teacher at school who gave me a place to stay until I graduated. She was determined that I would not be one of the ones to fall through the cracks. Thanks to her, I managed to survive until I was legally an adult and could handle my own life.

Unfortunately, it was decades before my father and I repaired our relationship.

One of the ways I handled the emotional and physical separation, was through researching my family history. I think I started out looking for answers as to why my father had also left his own family at a young age. I needed to know why he became the man he was and I did this by finding out about the family he grew up in. After all, none of us become who we are without our family. For good or ill, they help mold us into the people we are. And there is security and often great understanding and comfort in knowing what happened in the past that caused our parents to be the people they are.

I have been actively doing genealogy since I first married in 1974. I think there is something about joining your life with someone else and starting your own small family that makes you seek out your roots, despite the possible pain that investigation of family connections can bring.

In reality, researching your family history can actually be an extremely healing and inclusive process. But I started doing the research long before genealogy went “online.” Back then, it was hard, labor-intensive, tedious and slow. It was also limited by your distance to the record repository and whether you could actually get access approved. If you lived many states away from the location of the record, much of the research was dependent on whether you could find someone who would be willing to find the document you needed, make a copy and mail it to you. It was definitely not easy and often took months to hear back from these people, if you heard from them at all.

Over time, though, my once-minimal research skills were honed when I joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints (aka the LDS Church, commonly known as the “Mormons”) in 1980. They actually taught classes on how to do Family History Research and I caught on fast. It seemed I had a talent for it. Eventually, I trained as a paralegal, which added to my knowledge and research skills. Before long, I was the one teaching the genealogy classes. While I am a decent instructor, I am best at the actual research. I love ferreting out hidden records and tidbits of history that many researchers might overlook.

The LDS Church believes that our ancestors want us to find them and I believe that as well. Not because the church teaches it, but because I have experienced some very interesting things while doing research. There have been many occasions when I have been following a line of research that has not given me much in the way of results and something pulled my attention off in a completely different direction, suddenly inundating me with data for which I had been looking for years. I can’t count the times I have had a stray thought that led me directly to the information I needed — in a book or record collection in which it was not originally supposed to have been. Or had a book I glanced at fall open to information I had no idea was in the volume and which dramatically changed my understanding of family dynamics.

Yet these pale beside the experiences I have had where I have sensed the ancestors near me, leading me on as I worked. I have felt their spirits hover near me when I work, nudging me down genealogical pathways I never would have thought of on my own. And they have led me to find the names and birth dates of children who died young and were never discussed within the family because of the pain of that loss. There have been times I was certain I heard someone talking in my ear when no one was there.

I am no longer actively involved with the LDS Church, but genealogical research has been a driving force in my life throughout the years. Besides doing research on my own family and that of my husband (now my ex), I have done family history research for extended family members, as well as friends, coworkers and total strangers (albeit this last was usually through the Church).

The research on our family has been instrumental in acquainting me with many distant cousins who are also drawn to the work of finding family and understanding why we are who we are.

There is a great comradery among family historians, where they are related or not. We accept the notion that all of us are cousins, no matter how distant, and we share a lot of information with our “cousins” at the merest hint of a question. And even when we argue over a point of history, we seldom get angry with each other. The only thing we are intolerant of is the perpetuation of erroneous information, but that is a point for another discussion.

I have learned a lot about the families of my parents and my ex-husband’s parents over the years. Yet the process has helped me tremendously by making close friends of distantly related family. I have expanded my “family” to include many of my ex-husband’s family, the friendship relationships with whom surprisingly survived my divorce. These people let me know that I was still thought of as family.

I have done research on my son-in-law’s family at the request of his mother because her father would never tell her anything about her grandparents due to some severe trauma he experienced as a kid. When I was quickly able to discover the reason for his adamant abandonment of his family, she gained a better understanding of why her father was the way he was.

I have researched the family of my father’s last wife (not the woman who raised me) and was able to relate to her the story of how her ancestors came to the Colony of Virginia shortly after Jamestown was settled, how her family survived the Indian attacks of 1622 and later, and eventually moved west into Kentucky and Ohio.

I recently discovered one of her lines is descended from British nobility, which thrilled her to death. She explained to me that that particular line, her mother’s side, was always looked down on by her father’s relatives and she loved that it had actually been the opposite.

I am currently researching the family of her children’s father so that they will know where they came from and understand the father they were not able to know well because of their parents’ divorce.

There appears to be a running theme of healing in the process of learning about your ancestors. The stories of their lives can be filled with trauma that they overcame. Or perhaps did not overcome it. When that happens, I find my heart seems to open up to them, to give them the sympathy and understanding they may have not received in life. Somehow, I sense that they know this, that it pleases them.

I currently maintain ten different family trees on Ancestry.com. Only two belong directly to my ancestry and that of my ex-husband. The rest are the trees of extended family, friends, as well as some paying clients. In addition, I have a number of family trees saved on my computer which are the result of doing research for members of the LDS Church whom I knew needed help in doing their genealogy. I have also done a few trees for co-workers, as well as about 25 trees researched for total strangers introduced to me through the LDS Church.

Most of my trees on Ancestry are public and I am listed as willing to give assistance to anyone who asks for help. I believe in sharing family information and am not stingy with my time if I have it to give. I am always available to give advice. It has served me well in that most of the people I have needed assistance from have treated me likewise.

Two of the most interesting recent projects I have worked on came as the result of some odd circumstances. Last week I was contacted by a woman who also uses Ancestry.com and was helping a friend of hers who recently discovered — in his 80s no less — that he was adopted. His adoptive parents have already passed on so he can’t ask them any questions about his birth parents or the circumstances of his birth and adoption. He was raised as an only child and now wants to find and perhaps contact his biological family while he still has time.

Based on his DNA test, he and my ex-husband are third cousins. The woman helping him find his family gave me the two closest matches on the tree she created for him and I compared them to the people on my ex-husband’s tree. We found the connection fairly quickly and got the biggest surprise ever.

His biological mom is amazingly still alive!

The most recent research project (these always seem to come out of nowhere) is a friend of mine who found a packet of family photographs, a baptismal certificate and a form letter regarding a high school or college reunion from the mid-90s (no recipient name or address included). The package was lying in the gutter on the street near her home. She shared the pictures with me via text and asked me if there was any way I could find out to whom they belonged. Knowing I would be crushed if I had lost such precious mementos of my family, of course I offered to help.

The family pictures were very old and taken, based on the style of dress, between the 1880s and the 1940s. On the back of one of the photos were a couple of names — one was only a nickname without even a last name — and dates. On the off chance they were birthdates, I began searching for them on Ancestry.com.

It took a little while, but I tracked the family down and have messaged a few people who also have family trees on Ancestry to see if they know someone in the family who still lives in the town where the people in the photos lived — the same town in which my friend lives.

I am currently waiting for answers from those messages and my friend is trying to find any possibly family members that I have identified in the local phone book. With any luck, we’ll be able to get the photos back to the family who lost them.

This just confirms my belief that family history is not just about the past. It’s about us. All of us. Today. In the here and now.

Lord, I love this work!

Next Post: Genealogy: How to get Started


Amusement Among the Abstracts: Finding humor in the driest genealogical records

For those of a genealogical bent whose family history in the US starts in Colonial Virginia, you must be familiar with the Gentleman Genealogist, Mr. Beverley Fleet, who throughout his life as an historian studied the legal documents of the courts, wills, marriage listings, death notices, deeds and the operational receipts of landowners and merchants, and personal family documents contained in many county records and in the Virginia State Archives. In addition, he abstracted many documents in the hands of private citizens.

His most important work, The Virginia Colonial Abstracts, was contained in thirty-four paperbacked volumes, organized by county, which were created between the year of his retirement as an accountant on Wall Street in 1938 until the year 1948, the year before his death.

This man sifted the various documents collected through the courts and family records of Virginians, creating thousands of abstracts that have assisted genealogists in this country for approximately one hundred years now. Many of us who have sought even the faintest of glimmers representing the lives of our ancestors owe a great debt to the man for his dogged determination to reduce volume upon volume of loose leaf court entries, land records, etc., down to easily perused lists of abstracts containing only the most pertinent information necessary for family historians to find and document their ancestors lives. Recorded in the crabbed handwriting of court clerks, surveyors, plantation owners and often almost illiterate government officials in early Virginia, the vellum and parchment documents were succumbing to the ravages of time, fire, flood, and general misuse. 

Unfortunately, many of the records were not filed in any order and were often found mixed in with other groups of records that did not always have anything to do with each other. Obviously the clerks of the colonial era were as bad, if not worse, at proper filing techniques as many are today. This meant that as Mr. Fleet began working with one group of records, he often found records that didn’t belong with that group sandwiched in among the pages. Rather than pull it out of the group, he abstracted those as well and often included them in the volume he was working on at the time. While he recognized that placing these items within the record groups in which they actually did belong would have been ideal, his purpose was to document the records before time and mishandling destroyed them forever. As each volume was completed it was separately indexed within the volume, but there was not an index created covering the whole series.

Sadly, this made it made it difficult to quickly find the records one needed. To determine if a record of an ancestor was in a particular volume, one had to pull out each volume and read the index to determine if that ancestor was included in it. It was slow and tedious work, but far easier than actually goingthrough the stacks of primary documents and learning how to read the strange squiggles that sufficed for handwriting in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Armed with a pencil, paper and a magnifying glass Beverley Fleet spent the last decade of his life doing that for us. Eventually the Abstracts were typed up and bound in paper volumes that found their way into the Genealogy sections of libraries across the country.

These volumes have since been reorganized into three large volumes and properly indexed to make the records easier to locate. As a genealogist who has been dipping into the original works since the 1980s, I have always pulled the volumes off the shelves of libraries across the US, checked the index and put the ones I didn’t need to review back on the shelf. The ones I did review, I spent as little time as possible in that process. I checked that it was the county I needed, perused the index for the ancestors name and page number, then went to that page and copied the items that were pertinent to my research, and dropped them back in the return stacks. This is the time honored process every historian uses to determine if the information they are looking for is contained in a given volume, whether it is a book of extracts or a non-fiction account of an historical even or locale.

I have never spent any time learning about the author of such a work or reading the prefaces to each volume to gather the author’s thoughts on the work. Genealogy is a time-consuming past time in general. The faster one can find the information one needs, the quicker one can move on to another line of inquiry. I developed a method of skimming sections of histories and documents, without taking the time to read deeply unless the details of the events I was researching provided interesting reading in and of itself, or gave me good social background on the reasons our ancestors moved around the country and the events that touched their lives.

I have recently discovered that the volumes of Fleet’s Abstracts, as well as thousands of other books and documents, previously only available to read within the walls of libraries, have now been digitized into pdf files which are available for download from the FamilySearch.org website maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I knew some years ago that this project was ongoing at the LDS Church’s Family History Library in Salt Lake, Utah, but had not realized the scope of how many documents and books are already available to any researcher armed with a computer or handheld digital device. 

Until recently, I mostly worked with the records that were indexed on Ancestry.com, because it provided the easiest, fastest method of reviewing large quantities of data to be included in the family trees I research and regularly maintain. With the advent of Ancestry and FamilySearch, most of my research has been limited to the databases on these websites. I was thrilled when I was looking for information on FamilySearch and decided to see if a particular title I knew existed might have been digitized yet. Of course, it was. Not only could I read it online, but I could actually download a copy of it to read at my leisure. For free!

That kind of price tag is thrilling to genealogical researchers, who have been used to years of paying for copies, buying important volumes for our own personal libraries, or paying fees to historical societies for the use of their libraries. Not to mention the savings in papers and pencils for note taking that invariably get lost. Of course, any book with an active copyright still needs to be either bought (most are available through Amazon, of course) or read at a library. But the number of genealogical materials whose copyrights have lapsed and relegated them to public domain is amazing. Currently the FamilySearch site has hundreds of thousands of books and documents available for use in research without ever setting foot in a library!

I began downloading the Virginia Colonial Abstracts this last weekend, and skimmed the author’s preface to see what the volume contained rather than going to the end of the volume to peruse the index. And there I discovered something I never had time to notice before.

Beverley Fleet was a man with a very droll sense of humor. He seemed to think nothing of providing little amusing anecdotes about the process of creating the abstracts in that particular volume. He often included stories about the people he met over the course of the research and even included some rather snide remarks regarding people who wanted to hire him to do similar work on their particular project, usually for pennies on the dollar. And he was a man who never pulled punches. Words that were generally censored out of novels and other tomes at the time he was researching and writing these, were not removed from his prefaces, which struck me as a delightful clue to the man’s character. He had a particular affinity for the word “ass”, which at the time more often referred to a donkey than a disgusting part of the human body. I began looking forward to reading the preface in each of the volumes I looked at and almost invariably ended up laughing over the things he shared there. It made me wonder that I had not really read any of them before. 

And because I enjoyed them, because I learned so much about the personality of the man who spent a decade of his life making research easier for other genealogists, I just had to share this with you all. 

If you have used his Abstracts before, you may have skipped over these little gems to get to the meat of your research. If that is the case, the next time you dip into them, take a moment and read the preface. I guarantee you some surprising entertainment in the middle of otherwise dry historical research. Sadly, the reorganized three volume version of his work most likely doesn’t include these little bits of oddity, and that is a true loss to our community.

The only problem I experienced while reading them was learning that he had not written more on his own that didn’t have to do with genealogy. It takes a strangeness of thought to make a person enjoy reading history in the actual documents of the period. I think if he had had the time left in his life, he might have become an interesting author of history. It makes me sad to think that he was gone from the earth before I arrived on it. 

I would have enjoyed meeting this man, I think.