Genealogy Calls: When Ancestors Beckon

6 years ago

Many of us ask about our ethnic heritage.  We wonder why we love travel, hate the wind, pine to speak Italian, or have to live by the sea. Who wrote it into our DNA? What language did they speak, where did they live? Am I Irish or Dutch or Jewish, or all 3? Are the family stories about great grandpa the judge, or great great grandmother the sea pirate true?

Finding accurate data takes time and some skill. You will need to locate and use census material or passenger lists, wills and deeds and spend time in graveyards.


Warning: You may be required to let go of some of those cherished family tales. Australians are honored to claim a “convict” as an ancestor. Those poor souls were more indiginent and poor than they were criminal. I was enthralled as dad told of his Scottish forecousin who stole cattle, or sheep from the British. Britain shipped him to Australia as part of their prisoner relocation scheme. Being a Scot with a good eye for location, he worked hard and selected farmland in a prime spot. After he sold it, it became one of the main streets in Sydney and he became Lord Mayor. Eager for information I sent a confident request to the current Lord Mayor. The respectful answer was decorated with three golden crowns on the letterhead. My much loved tale was bollocks.

Cities are renamed, disappear, or totally change in nature and importance, even country borders move. Finding old maps gives a more accurate context for your family. Reading old hand writing and understanding what outmoded words mean can be a challenge.

Is there a right way to request information? Does it change from country to country?  British Army records require that any relative older than you uses the proper form to relinquish their right to the information. Fees are involved. How do you pay in English pounds or Euros?

Is this a real name or a nick name? How do you find her maiden name? In Scotland, as if to aid genealogists the wife is often buried as Mary McPherson wife of Angus Gillespie. Many cultures and nations like England or Holland have distinct naming patterns for sons and daughters. You have to know what is a primary source is, what a secondary source is, and when it matters?

World War II had a devastating impact on families. An infant was left on a sidewalk. Those who found him named him after the town. That cut that family tree down to a shrub. Children lived with non-parents, informally taking their names, that can turn a family tree into a vine. If grandpa was a gypsy, your tree might become a repotted plant.

Polish by decent but with an English sounding name, she said that when her father passed through Ellis Island he did not give his birth name. He read a word on a sign claiming it as his name. It stuck; it made for easy spelling of a name but the tracing of ancestors impossible. His daughter was thankful he was not passing a restroom at the time. Others shortened or anglicized their names other ways. Some Cuban immigrants have little hope of finding any ancestral information.

Brace yourself, you may find unmarried mothers and fathers, children with varying last names in the same brood, relatives you dearly love as blood relatives may have become yours by deed poll. The early 19th century doctor your family prized may have been a grocer’s porter. You may have indentured servants or slaves in your tree. Half brothers and sisters or half uncles and aunts may materialize.

Marriages can be difficult to trace, formal ones not so much but informal ones or non-registered ones are a challenge. Multiple concurrent wives, serial wives, children born before the wedding date, ancestors imprisoned for poaching or fighting could be in your genetic mix. Are you prepared to find out your parents or grandparents lied about their ages to go to war or to get married or just because they wanted to (and you wonder where you get your orneriness from?)

If you have the courage and curiosity climbing your ancestral tree can be a hoot. And there are a multitude of online helps from beginners to advanced. Programs will plot your tree and separate your 9th cousin from your 5th.

Be it a tree, a shrub, a vine or a repotted plant it’s yours. Embrace it. You can take none of their glory and wear none of their shame, but if it is important for you to find out who went before you, (wo)man up, and go climb.


Here is a different blog on the same topic Genealogy Challenges: Identifying Ancestors is not for the Feint Hearted.

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