I haven’t regularly posted to this blog for a while. Life gets in the way sometimes, but since this week marks my 5-year “blogoversary” I’m inspired to jump back in. I’ve recently had eye surgery, and the world is literally a much brighter and clearer place, so I can enjoy reading and writing again. I plan to take this blog in a slightly different direction on a fairly regular basis now. In addition to musing on retirement, travel, and life in general I will share a little of what’s been eating up my time for the past year or so – my love for history and genealogy.
My sister and I have always loved historical fiction and biographies. That’s a legacy from our mother, who was fascinated with Tudor England and even wrote an occasional story about Henry VIII herself. When we took trips anywhere, she would say things like, “Just think what it was like for the people who traveled in wagons and settled here when there was nothing” or, “Can you imagine the first person who was paddling down the river and heard the thunder of Niagara Falls?” She was transported by every place she visited, and hoped to help us to live a for a moment in another time, and in another person’s shoes.
When I had my first grandchild over 20 years ago, I started to think about history on a much more personal level. I remembered my grandparents, as my parents remembered theirs. I knew our new generation would remember us, but I suddenly wanted to make sure that there was a way for our grandchildren to know our grandparents and what it took for them to build their families. There were struggles and illnesses to overcome, and some did not survive them long. I began to dip my toe in genealogy.
Back then there was no Ancestry.com, but there were other resources and the web was beginning to coalesce. I bought desktop family tree software and started throwing in data as I found it, writing to family members and obtaining civil and church birth, marriage, and death records. I saved everything I could dig up. I put online inquiries on Message Boards in several groups. I combed through boxes of “stuff” from my grandparents, my parents, and my husband’s family.
About eight years into this, my father’s family had a big reunion. My cousins and I put together everything we had. Then we wrote to everyone in the family asking a number of questions – some concrete and some very open-ended. We also requested the loan of photos. We ended up with a lovely book of memories and stories, and over 1500 images on CD to share. I also ended up with a backlog of stuff to document in my tree. The process inspired me to start putting together books and CDs for other branches. The idea was to put the info collected into as many hands as possible, to assure it was available for the next curious descendants, if and when they were ready.
I’ve done a variety family books now. As each niece or nephew marries, I contact the closest relatives and request a little assistance so I can put together a family tree and small history/memory book as a wedding gift to the new “branch.” In doing these books, I often go back to see where in the heck I found existing info. Thankfully, I have always made at least some kind of note, but I have sometimes been frustrated in trying to locate my original source data from decades ago to review it. That’s how I went from a Sunday hobbyist to a budding genealogist. I started actually citing my new sources in a meaningful way, and went back to review older info. In doing that I found research errors I had made, and, well, this is where it went from just a fun thing to do when I had time to slipping down the rabbit hole into careful, more detailed research. I love a puzzle.
So… I’ve been taking this more seriously. With many online resources worldwide now at my fingertips – and free time to visit archives, cemeteries, churches, and old homesteads – the family tapestry I’m weaving together gets richer every day. I’ve also taken courses online and at Genealogy Fairs. This time last year I was knee-deep in the Boston University Certificate in Genealogical Research program: sixteen weeks of college level coursework, with tons of reading and lots of practical research. I also did an online course at the University of Strathclyde last year. It’s a less rigorous course, but still a great foundation for anyone who wants to understand good research fundamentals – and it’s free.
Some members of our family have also done DNA testing, and that has been a whole other kind of fun – genetic genealogy.
So now you know (if you were wondering at all) partly where I’ve been for the last year or so. I hope now to begin sharing some of this adventure with you. If you are already researching your own family history, I hope my experiences will enrich yours, and that you will share what you’ve learned as well. If you’ve wondered what all the fuss is about, maybe you’ll catch a little research fever. Maybe you’ll decide to do a DNA test at one of the several sites that has had success in helping people find their roots, and perhaps even connect with some new living family.
Or maybe you’ll just think I’m that crazy lady – you know, the one wandering around the cemetery taking headstone photos requested by other families, or in the bookstore wearing the t-shirt that says “I Seek Dead People.” Mostly, I hope you’ll enjoy the stories and background that go with each new discovery as I share this sometimes confounding journey. Nothing is ever exactly what you expect in genealogy, but it’s always interesting, once you start to look. And we can always learn from history, especially if we just imagine ourselves for just a moment in the world of our ancestors.