So ancestry.com has run a bunch of ads lately, offering free two-week trial memberships. I gave in and signed up last week, figuring I would just slap out my family tree and cancel before the two weeks expire, no big whoop.
And the ads are right - it's easy. Plop in a few basic facts about your family, then the site immediately searches everything you can imagine - old censuses, obituaries, passenger and immigration lists, World War I draft cards, court records, and family trees that other people have assembled. Within an hour, you have more information than you know what to do with.
But there's a catch - actually two of them:
- Genealogical research is more complicated than you might think, so there is always more to do.
- The process is highly addictive - more so than Bejeweled or any other time-waster I've encountered. When the site has more hints for you about a given line, a little green leaf appears next to a name, and said leaf excites me more than I'd like to admit. And it's not so easy that it gets boring either - there's just enough ambiguity to stimulate your critical thinking and researching skills. You can easily check the sources to assess their value for yourself; I solved one mystery by noting that someone incorrectly transcribed a census taker's sloppy handwriting.
After six days, I've learned everything and nothing about those shadowy figures from the past who not only shaped my DNA, but helped make our nation what it is today (for better or for worse). For me, the process confirmed the lessons that most of us learned in History 101, but personalized them. So, for what it's worth:
Lesson Number One: Remember when your teacher said that history is typically written by the "winners," meaning the people whose culture ended up dominant at a given time or place? It's true! In my particular case, the WASP ancestors left meticulous detail regarding who begat whom, all the way back to Merrie Olde Englande. Lines from my non-WASP ancestors fizzled out rather quickly, as least as far as any documentation is concerned. I found the exact same pattern among my husband's family.
Those WASPs did leave some fun stories, however. Before now, I never realized the extent of my ancestors' Puritan streak; I've discovered folks with names like Prudence, Mercy, Ebenezer, and – my personal favorite – Mindwell! So far, the most exciting tale involves my husband's great-times-however-many grandfather, who apparently liked to taunt Patriot rebels during the American Revolution, stealing their horses and supplies and making a nuisance of himself. He met a rather sticky end – but not before siring a passel of kids, ensuring that a small part of his DNA wended its way down to my husband.Lesson Number Two: As you have undoubtedly heard before, those people from days of yore produced an extraordinary number of children, the result of marrying at the height of one's fertility (immediately after puberty); other contributing factors included lack of birth control or alternative nocturnal activities (no TV). This helped ensure that, centuries down the line, you would exist and be surfing the Internet right now. But despite (or perhaps because of) their fecundity, many of our ancestors and their children didn't live all that awfully long. (I did spot some strange exceptions, however, especially on my husband's side – several people reportedly lived into their nineties during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, without the benefit of blood pressure medication or the like).
Lesson Number Four: You can certainly learn a lot regarding the who, where, and when of your ancestry, getting a sense of your place in history. But the how and why will typically remain mysterious. Some of my burning questions will likely remain unresolved, such as:
- Two of my ancestors (from the not-so-distant past, relatively speaking) popped off right after their fortieth birthdays. Why? The record is silent. Even if I could find the actual obituaries (which I haven't so far), I doubt they would say much. Most obituaries, if they address cause of death at all, say something like "He succumbed to a combination of diseases." With my own milestone birthday looming, I'd like to know what my genes have planned.
- Why would there be two entries for the same person, with the same birthdate, in the same place – but featuring two wildly different death dates and places? To my twenty-first century ears, this almost sounds like someone's running a scam.
- Why does my oldest son tan a brilliant golden brown, while all the rest of our family members burn, peel, and freckle? No answers here.
- Did Mindwell, in fact, mind well? Did his name drive his destiny, or did he rebel? We'll likely never know, although we do know that, despite any childhood taunting, he did survive to the ripe old age of 54.