Lots of families can claim at least one family historian. Having collected piles of data, they surface at family gatherings, weaving their slender genetic threads through generations of relations. And then they bore everyone to extinction, remarkably, with their findings. They collect photos, newspaper articles, cemetery rubbings, maps, census sheets, and church records. How do I know all this? That’s what I do. And let me tell you, nothing thrills me more than a chance to visit a fresh cemetery.
If you watch the Lifetime show, “Who Do You Think You Are,” you can get an idea of the type of genealogical work that goes into building a family tree. You start with someone in the family who either has information or needs information and you build from whatever you have. In my case, when I started two years ago, I knew next to nothing about my family. I knew that my father’s father’s family “came over on the boat with the Studebakers.” And I knew my mother’s family was almost exclusively Irish, with the exception of one colorful lady who was, according to family legend, “a member of the Spanish court.”
With only those little bits, a couple of names, and access to a university library system, I started out to find out who I thought I was. I plugged names into databases, including a particularly good one at the Mormon Church, and I started printing out pages of information and jotting down scores of names, dates, and places. And I was confident it would take me only a short while to get the tree back to the pioneers, the people who were the first to come to the US from some place else.
Well, two years later, I am perhaps the most boring individual on this planet. I have over 350 names in the family tree, I can tell you stories about soldiers, asylums, and siblings till the cows come home, and I probably know who owned the cows. I have information on dozens of surnames, many countries, rival political agendas, and inumerable marriages, baptisms, and deaths. I’ve even taken trips to cemeteries and churches, looking for the trace of my ancestors in other places, like Ireland and France. It's been a tremendous success, even though, in the process, I have bored nearly as many people as are currently in the tree.
So I know now that my father’s father’s family did not come to this country with the Studebakers. That was interesting to me, that they would veil the truth about their journey here to latch onto this famous family. I have yet to find the Spanish lady, but I will keep looking for her because she intrigues me.
What I do know is this: I can now, with some authority, become anyone I like, based on this research. That’s been the most fun of all.
On national holidays, I can be the one whose family sold property to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington so they could build the White House. On military holidays, I can be the direct descendant of someone who fought in the American Revolution at the Battle of White Plains, someone who enlisted in the 47th Indiana Volunteer Infantry to fight for the Union during the Civil War, or someone who was fortunate enough to provide his own horse to the Shenendoah Rangers, fighting for the Confederacy in Virginia.
If I want to place my family history in commerce, I can be the great great granddaughter of the publisher of the Larne Weekly Reporter in Ireland in the 19th century. Or I can be the one whose family owned a succession of blacksmith shops in north central Indiana. I come from several streetcar operators, one soap factory worker, many carpenters, some farmers, and one really fascinating political prisoner who was sold into slavery after the Monmouth Rebellion in the 17th century. I come from car builders, postal workers, house builders, furniture craftsmen, housekeepers, and wagon makers. As far as I have been able to discover, and clearly the work continues, we never owned slaves and when many around us were illiterate, we could read and write.
These days, I choose to ally myself with the Spanish lady though. Her name was Isabella. She was someone’s mother, I can’t tell whose, and every generation since her time has named a daughter Isabella. Her husband was an Irish fisherman whose boat was swept off course. He landed in Spain, brought her back to Ireland, and married her. My second daughter carries her name as her middle name. And my modern Isabella is a New York, Madrid, and Seville trained Spanish dancer.
So, where does this leave me? It leaves me with lots of work to do certainly. After all, Labor Day is coming up and I have this wonderful photograph of my great uncle, standing proudly with the auto workers outside the Studebaker plant sometime during the 1930s. I want to get my story right even if it's not all that compelling to hear it.
It is my story after all.