Monday, June 25, 2007

Is Genealogy Bunk?

There’s an article in this month’s issue of Smithsonian talking about how ‘genealogy is bunk’. Some bloggers have already talked about it, such as here. Not having read the article, I’m not going to talk about it, except to think about why I have dived so furiously into this activity, and why I enjoy doing this, and why I don’t think it’s silly. (But honestly, being a member of science fiction/fantasy fandom, I am quite used to people thinking my activities are silly. What could possibly be sillier than dressing up as a jester and going to a renaissance festival, or dressing up in a Starfleet Uniform and going to a convention?)

One common accusation is that genealogists are seeking how they are related to Napoleon or Chaucer or Triboulet. Someone reading my blog might assume that is my intent, but actually the ancestral line that might actually tie me to Chaucer if the 20-sided-die rolls an 18 six times in a row is the line I am least interested in researching. I don’t want my mom to be offended by this, but one of her relatives has so researched the heck out of the tree, and has taken it back to the early 1600s, with certainty, there’s nothing left for me to do except try to prove/disprove the line to Chaucer, which is likely impossible, and I would rather just accept it. So if that were my intent, I’d be done.

I’d love to extend the other lines that far, including my maternal grandfather’s line, though it’s not going to happen. In Europe, there was a series of things called Pogroms and one major one called the Holocaust, that among other things destroyed most of the records I would need. And the records that do exist are mostly offline in Europe. I have a relative on my paternal side who has spent fifteen years, and traced one line back to the early 1800s in Lithuania, and it’s a little fuzzy there. She has had to actually go to Lithuania several times and spend weeks researching. In my mind she has set a marker indicating what’s possible with the most extreme effort. And I know I don’t have what it takes to make that effort, so I will just have to do what I can, and see what I find.

Genealogy for me is a puzzle. And one that matters to me personally. I love puzzles, and always have. My paternal grandfather taught/passed on a love for the crossword. As a child I had a subscription to Games magazine. Logic puzzles have always been my favorite though. Drawing the tables, and filling in the Xs from the clues given. No need for any trivial knowledge, just following a series of logical steps until conclusions are reached and the entire table is filled in successfully. That was what I enjoyed most when I was a computer programmer as well – the puzzle of getting the computer to do what you wanted it to do. Figuring out what was going wrong when it always did.

In 1987 my paternal grandfather was interviewed and recorded on his knowledge of family history. He talked about how his father, Barney, would say he was born in England, though my grandfather believed he was really born in Poland, and emigrated to England at 3 or 4. He also ‘knew’ that Barney, a brother, and their father explored North America – visiting Winnipeg, Memphis, and St. Louis before either returning to England, or sending for the rest of the family. There are certainly a lot of details there, but still somewhat fuzzy on particulars. In about a month of research, mostly sitting on my butt in front of a computer terminal, I have found English census records, ship manifests and other records documenting some of their life in England, and the multiple oceancrossings, and of course, raising more questions.

I know now that Barney’s brother Sol didn’t make the initial trip. (Older than Barney, and recently married, I suspect he stayed home as a means of support for the women and children.) The father and son left England in 1904, and were in Winnipeg for 3 years. (That 3 years was one of the bigger surprises; I’m not sure anyone in my family expected that their exploration was that lengthy. Maybe they needed 3 years to earn enough money to make the return trip. [Update: Actually, they were only in Canada for 3 months]) In 1907 they crossed the Canadian border, and that’s how I know how long they’d been in Canada, because the border crossing document includes this information. It also says they’re headed for St. Paul, MN…a surprise…to join a heretofore unknown cousin…and I’m not sure yet if they ever went. I have the ship manifest from 1908 when they returned, with Sol, at Ellis Island. So obviously they weren’t in the US long. And the ship manifest when the wives and children arrived five months later. All the Ellis Island records say they’re headed for Memphis. And the 1909 one includes an address the father and two sons were now allegedly living at in Memphis. However, one month later, Sol’s wife gives birth in St. Louis. And in 1910 (the census) all of them are clearly in St. Louis. So there are a lot of questions I have about the immigration to America, but a lot of the pieces are also falling into place, and my family knows a lot more than it used to.

Does this information matter? Not in the grand scheme of things. But if we want to get philosophical – nothing matters. Nothing at all. The Earth will continue rotating on its axis until the universe comes to an end. Instead of getting all depressed about this, and committing mass suicide – paralleling Disney’s false portrayal of lemmings – cheer up! Real lemmings don’t act that way, and neither should humans! Life is what we make of it. So we should all do what we enjoy. Though it’s nice to do what we enjoy, while also thinking about those that are going to follow us. I know I have an interest in the lives of my ancestors. I consider it likely that one or more of my descendants (either direct if I am lucky, or through my brother/cousins if not) will be grateful for the research and archiving I do now.

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