Dec 302008
[Originally posted on Familiar Strangers blog]

(Image from flickr)

In the last year of my genealogy work, I have come across a couple of stereotypes of genealogy work and genealogists which I would like to dispel.

First, I find that a lot of people assume that I am interested in tracing my family as far back as possible. While this is perhaps the goal of some genealogists, I am not really particularly interested in this. The reality is that once you get past the record-obsessed 19th century, you are swimming in murky waters as far as genealogy is concerned. In England, you can have some luck with parish and apprenticeship records before that time, but it is dicey. With common names, you have very little evidence that the William you found is actually the William you are looking for. It is highly circumstantial evidence, based on some educated guesses about birth dates and location and parental names. So while I do play around with these 18th century mysteries, I know that they are the most vulnerable entries in my trees. I treat them with emotional distance. I get far more passionate about the 19th century cohort, for whom records abound. For these people, I can actually piece together a fairly decent understanding of their lives and their families. The story becomes much more than something that can be captured on a genealogical pedigree chart.

The second common misconception I encounter is that I am interested in tracing my family back to royalty or some other significant person of fame. There are a few near-famous people on the tree, but what makes them interesting in my mind is that I can find out lots about them. Notoriety is a good way to ensure that you will be remembered well. These people provide the clearest window into a time and place because the time and place promoted them to a position worthy of writing about. I don’t find my self-concept particularly enhanced by the presence of these people in my family. I think, however, that many of the genealogists of the past were, in fact, interested primarily in making a connection to fame. In the time before computers and the Internet, a famous relative probably meant a mother lode of information about the family which was available in no other place. Now, however, with the mass digitization of vital records, information about our common ancestors is easily accessed. Databases are great equalizers.

Another common stereotype (held even by me) is that most genealogists are retired men and women who, facing the denouement of their lives, have taken to history for a little excitement. Since I am almost exclusively an internet genealogist, I don’t often meet in person the people with whom I correspond. My sense is, however, that given the current popularity of family history research, today’s genealogists have little in common with each other other than an interest in poking around in their family’s past. Again, I suspect that the old lady with the gum shoes stereotype derives from the pre-computer days when genealogy research required a serious time and money investment and retired people had significant quantities of both. Now a genealogist is simply someone with enough money for genealogy software and internet access and enough interest to type a forebearer’s name into Google.

So then if I am not interested in tracing my line back to Adam, finding famous people, or looking for a little historical context before I take the big snooze, why am I so bloody obsessed with genealogy? Well, I can’t quite say that this has nothing to do with my mortality. It has everything to do with placing my life within the rhythms of human history. This gives me a connection to the bigger picture of humanity and human foibles. Famous relatives aren’t a big draw because it is the complications of so-called normalcy which interest me. I recently discovered that my great-great-great-grandmother had an illegitimate daughter before she was married. Her name was Emma and when the family emigrated to Canada from Cornwall, her illegitimacy was obscured because she was passed off as the legitimate daughter of my g-g-g-grandparents. (The secrets of the past are easily revealed when birth, marriage, and death certificates are all searchable‚Ķ) Emma died young, only to be replaced in the family by the second illegitimate Emma, born to my great-great-grandaunt. Neither Emma shows up in family photos, although there are several which have survived from that time. To me, the story of the illegitimate Emmas is far more interesting than any knight, earl, or prince ancestor. Emma is important because she reminds me of permanent struggle of humanity: sometimes we don’t always do what our communities and families want us to do and sometimes we pay the price for these transgressions. Our lives are complex and genealogy reminds me that this complexity is nothing new. Tempted as we are to think that we are better or worse off than our ancestors, we are not. Some things have changed, but others are not and it is the constant redrawing of this line between what is different and what it the same which keeps me interested, addicted and obsessed.