Genealogy, researching one’s ancestors, has exploded lately. Ancestry.com, 23 and Me, and some smaller research companies have become part of a hugely successful, very profitable industry. Millions of people have discovered the allure of discovering long-forgotten or previously unknown twists and turns of their family tree.
Family I did not know I had
Geneology can open the door for you to connect and reconnect with family members. In my case, it helped me to find and reconnect with formerly unknown relatives.
In coming weeks, I will detail a lot about the ins-and-outs, positives and negatives, risks and rewards of genealogical DNA testing. I will also explain the benefits and drawbacks of the biggest commercial DNA testing services. Today, I’m just going to mention a couple of my experiences in this regard.
My mother’s sister, Iris, and her husband had two sons. When she became pregnant again, her marriage was already in trouble. Her husband and his parents pressured her to give the baby up for adoption. Iris and her husband were young, money was tight, and their younger son had special needs. In the 1970s, there was even less in the way of resources and support for families with special needs kids than is available now. So Aunt Iris was in a difficult position.
Iris’ own parents (my maternal grandparents) were willing to adopt the baby themselves, or at least raise it for her. But for whatever her reason, my aunt went through with the adoption to strangers instead. I was very young at the time and only knew of the situation many years later, when my mother made reference to it once.
And then Ancestry DNA discovered my missing first cousin, Julia, who was born in 1970. It also connected her with her brother, my cousin Ken, who lives in Oklahoma but who grew up across the street from me and was my best friend throughout my childhood. He had learned about her existence when he was an adult and had tried unsuccessfully to find her.
It turned out that Julia had lived all her life just about 40 minutes from me, here on Long Island. Meeting her was incredible, and we quickly became friends. Her physical appearance and her voice was so very much like that of her mother – my Aunt Iris – that it actually made me cry for a few minutes with shock. Even more amazing to me was that Julia shared distinct mannerisms I remembered from my aunt, even though the two of them had never met. Tragically, Julia died suddenly on March 1, 2019. I had the privilege of knowing her for about 23 months.
DNA testing results also introduced me to my cousin Kerri. My great-grandma Jean had a brother named Morris, and Kerri is Morris’ granddaughter. This is a photo of Jean and Morris on the dance floor.
Kerri, her husband and their 2 beautiful daughters also live on Long Island. We have had the pleasure to get together several times. She is a genealogy research buff much like I am, and we happily discovered that were both enrolled in the Boston University program for genealogical research during the same semester, although we were in different sections.
Why does it really matter?
Family history is more than just pedigree charts, census forms, and birthdate records. It can give us a stronger understanding of who we are today and who we want to be. Knowing our cultural background and where we came from can help us develop a strong sense of who we really are. The way we relate to our family stories and create our own narratives about ourselves helps establish our unique family tree.
Human beings innately desire attachment, belonging, and connection. We have the ability to develop relationships with other people in our present, but also with people in our past and future. I’m not crazy … obviously our relationships with people in the past and the future are quite different from the ones in our present reality. But a relationship is the way in which people are connected. We are obviously connected to our ancestors and to generations yet to come. The more we discover about our past, the stronger the connection we feel to our ancestors. As we assemble and document our own history, we enable future generations to connect with us after we are gone.
Learning the history of our ancestors helps us gain a greater understanding of the challenges they faced. We all face hard things. Remembering that fact in the context of others’ shortcomings allows us to be better people – better citizens, leaders, employees, managers, volunteers, friends, spouses, parents, grandparents, children, siblings. Better human beings.
Stories of our ancestors show that life can be tough. Inequalities, unfairness, struggles, problems, disappointments and heartbreak have always existed. But we can survive, get through, regroup, recover, triumph and find happiness anyway.
Mistakes in your family history
If your family tree goes back a few generations, it is almost guaranteed to contain an error or errors. In fact, there could be entire branches in the tree that are based on a mistake. For that reason, if you work on a family tree it is always a good idea to seek multiple sources for information and to cross-reference and cross-check facts whenever possible.
There are times when you run into a ‘brick wall’ doing your research and you cannot find anything about an ancestor. You check census records, land records, wills, military records, death records, newspaper articles, alternate spellings … anything and everything you can think of, and nothing comes up. Sometimes you just have to move on with a plan to circle back and try again at some point in the future.
Some Reasons People Research family history
Understand Namesakes – To learn more about the person you were named after, family names that are handed down, and unusual names in your family.
My son’s name is Nicholas Charles. Nicholas was my husband’s first middle name, and Nick was the name my husband’s father went by, even though his legal name was Vincent.
Charles was my father’s first name, and that of his father before him. I knew from my Dad that my great-grandfather’s first and middle names were Cornelius Starling … it was genealogy that taught me that his middle name was his mother’s maiden name. I also learned that they were Canadian. That seems like a simple fact to have not known about my great-grandparents, but I discovered that there had been a major falling out and in the family. It happened because my Protestant grandfather married a Catholic woman. His family completely cut him off. They ostracized him. I therefore grew up knowing nothing about any of the people in that side of my family. Rather ironically, it is that paternal family line I have been able to trace back over 1000 years.
To Explore and Apply to Heritage or Lineage Societies
Many people who get involved in genealogy eventually become interested in lineage societies. What are lineage societies? They are clubs, groups, and organizations that you are allowed to join based on your provable ancestry. Documentation and proof is absolutely mandatory. Nearly all lineage societies ask you to prove the birth date, death date, marriage date and spouse, and parents for every generation starting with you, and going back to your ancestor who needs the qualifications for the society origin.
Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) is a well-known lineage society. It accepts applications for membership from women who can prove they are descended from someone who fought or provided assistance to the colonial cause in the American Revolution. Your claim cannot just be based on family lore or letters, etc.
It’s not just prestige that inspires people to be interested in joining lineage societies. Some societies have genealogical research libraries that are only open to members. There can also be networking and socializing opportunities with people who share your interests. This is a photo taken by a friend at the DAR Library in Washington D C. It’s library is open to the general public, and free.
Other reasons for joining a lineage society include bringing awareness to the particular group or time in history that the society celebrates. Many societies engage in charitable works and public service. There is also the excitement of having your research authenticated as valid by earning the approval of a professional genealogist verifying applications for a lineage society.
There are all types of lineage societies. Reputable ones require an applicant provide proof of lineage to qualify for membership. Proof must meet documentation requirements. Applications must be completed to exact standards. The documentation provided is then reviewed and approved by an official genealogist for the society. Applications can be rejected outright, or rejected with a request for different or additional evidence.
Lineage societies I belong to include:
Daughters of the American Revolution
The National Society, Colonial Dames XVII Century
The Baronial Order of Magna Carta
The Descendants of the Templar Knights
The Military Order of the Crusades
The Magna Carta was signed in the year 1215. Fulk V was King of Jerusalem from 1131 to 1143. Obviously, these are records not easy to track. After I completed what research I could on my own, I enlisted the assistance of an experienced professional with knowledge and resources to take up the search at the point I left off. After a lot of diligence and many research hours, she triumphed with provable connections back to those days and those ancestors.
Preserve a Close Relative’s Memory and Legacy – To learn more about a parent, grandparent or sibling after their death. Genealogical research has taught me a surprising amount of information about relatives that I thought I knew well. For example, many people don’t like to talk about their military service. Military records can be a real source of information, especially when ancestors served during war time. Here are my parents, before my dad shipped out to Vietnam.
Preserving tangible family traditions – To preserve knowledge and memories of ancestors who contributed to family traditions, such as through a family recipe book. Some of the culinary memories I have include:
Grandma Elvira’s Arroz con pollo.
Grandma Millie’s matzah brie.
Mom’s stuffed meat manicotti.
My mother in laws meatballs and ricotta.
Food can be edible memories. When we eat these things, I invariably think of them. Sharing them with my children is like passing down a memory. I hope someday to write them down into something of a recipe book.
Learn more about and preserve original Family Culture – To allow families that have migrated from another country the opportunity to preserve some of the culture of their old country.
I was a real melting pot kid. In terms of religion, my ancestors were Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. They hailed from England, Canada, Ireland, Peru, Mexico, Ukraine, Poland, Russia. My husband’s family were all from Italy, and since I was with him from the age of 16, I assimilated a lot of Italian traditions into my life as well. On one hand, it’s great to have a diverse background. The bad part is that the cultural influences have been diluted by time and by competing influences that cause things to become muddled.
Create a Family Legacy – To fulfill a desire to pass on a legacy to future generations.
People have a basic desire to know where they came from and how they got to where they are today. Everyday life is busy, and not everybody chooses to make the time to discover family history or trace genealogy. Often people try to do it, but run into difficulty and don’t know how to proceed.
I was always a person with a deep and abiding interest in history. Not just the big moments, but an intense curiosity about the little things. I remember very clearly the first book report I ever wrote was in Mrs. Scharf’s first-grade class. It was about George Washington, pretty typical fodder for an elementary school assignment.
But I wrote two reports … The book report, and a second report about what I thought were interesting things about George Washington, and things I wondered about that had to do with him. Things like, what would he have eaten for breakfast? I still remember the answer was cornmeal cakes with butter and honey, and hot tea without cream or sugar. Of course, I nagged my mother to let me try that. I remember she got a package of cornmeal that had an old-fashioned looking design on the front. I liked the cornmeal cakes, but I hated the plain tea and had to have her add milk and sugar to it. My kids already think I’m a history nerd, so I never told them this story. I guess I’m going to learn if they actually read my blog!
Just like I wanted to know more about George Washington in my first book report, I always had many questions about my family history. All too frequently, those questions were not answered or were answered with diversions. When I got older, I learned that things like religious conflicts, immigrant fear of the past, health issues and other obstacles really made the past murky and inaccessible.
Unexpected motivation and support
Odds are many of your ancestors had to overcome some serious personal hardships in their lives. Knowing your ancestors had great inner strength can be a powerful encouragement for anyone trying to cope with strife today, or to understand their place in the world.
My cousin Julia, who I wrote about earlier in this post, discussed with me several times something related to this point. She loved her adoptive family very much, and she was profoundly appreciative of the life they had given her. Yet she said she had always been aware that she didn’t quite ‘fit.’ It wasn’t that she was unaware that she had been adopted; she said it was certainly no secret. But according to her, she was always painfully aware of a need to find her birth family. It was tragic that her biological mother died before they had a chance to meet – my Aunt Iris passed away in 2007. But Julia did get to meet her biological father, her older brother Ken, me – her first cousin – and several other relatives. Julia expressed to me her happiness at being able to have a better understanding of where she fit in the world.
There are some historically recognizable names in my family tree. Another time I will try to explain the meaning of genealogical ‘times removed’ and other potentially confusing terms. But my point is that your family tree can help drive home the fact that we are all interconnected in ways that are sometimes surprising. Everyone has tough days and tough times. Of course, what constitutes “tough” varies widely. The broader, important point is that life is not perfect for anyone all the time.
What we all have in common is that everybody matters. If you were to view your family tree from the perspective of one of your own ancestors, then you and your life represent their future. You are part of the future about which they may have dreamed. Your life falls within the scope of their legacy goals. You are a product of all the generations that came before, and so are any children you have (or will have), and on down the line.
Genealogy is history on an extremely accessible personal scale. Like for my cousin, it helps satisfy a deep human need to understand how we fit into the broader world that exists around us. It weaves together a tapestry of lifetimes from the past, the present and the future. It matters.