Genealogy started out as a hobby 40 some odd years ago. I got into it because my mother had always been involved in it for all of my childhood. Back when she started working on her family lines in the late 1950’s, it was a great deal harder to get information past her parent’s and grandparent’s generations, even with access to a family bible or other sources within the area. It took hard work digging through various libraries and court houses to find documentation to prove information was truthful. Letters had to be written and sent off to all sorts of people while following possible leads, and it took weeks, sometimes months, to get anything back. Most leads were dead ends, leading my mother right back to where she started. It was a long hard slog to get things sorted and the needed documentation to back it up.
It got easier with the advent of the computer age. Contacting the right people and various governmental departments became as easy as sending an email. It still took weeks to get information back, but it eventually found its way into the mailbox. Then along came sites designed just for genealogy buffs. It all started with the LDS Church and their site and spread from there. Eventually the grandmother of all sites, Ancestry.com, became available for a price, and people flocked to join. But just because it was on line didn’t mean it was always correct information. In fact, it just became harder to sort the truth from the gossip.
Here’s the deal, without documentation from or concerning the people you are researching, all you have is family lore, gossip, and something your twice removed second cousin’s half sister’s dad once said, to follow. Dates, name spellings, even names themselves are often wrong. And once it is taken as family history gospel, it just keeps getting repeated over and over, even if it is wrong. Documentation consists of things like birth, death, or marriage certificates. Baptismal documents, tax roles, census rolls, personal letters written to and by the people you are researching, even things like pay stubs can give information that will lead to the right information. All government documents are also gold to genealogists who are seeking the truth. Anything else is simply family stories that are unproven and will remain so until there is documentation to prove it.
I was fortunate to travel and live abroad. More than one weekend was spent following the family history trail. In England, I was able to visit one of the traditional family houses belonging to my mother’s family lines. Valence House, as it is now called, is in Debenham, England. It used to belong to the Bonham family, one of which immigrated to the young country called America in the 1600’s. The rest of the family stayed in England. It was a thrill to walk into a building where my ancestors walked. When I told the docent that I was an American relation, he pulled out the charts he had, I pulled out the charts I had and we found our connection. He practically did a Happy Dance, then took myself and my family into the rooms that were off limits to the public. It was amazing to stand in the library/study of Thomas Bonham and realize the deep connection I felt to the room. My biggest regret was that during our stay in England, I didn’t get to go to the Stanway House in the countryside where other relatives lived.
When I tell that story today, believe it or not, I actually have “cousins” who question its validity. Yeah, it shocks me too. Why would I lie about something so vitally important? I have found that some people simply cannot admit they might have something wrong in their information as well. By heavens, they are right and EVERYONE else is wrong. Even if we have documentation that proves them wrong Some people simply always have to be right. Kind of sad, that. Of course, when one becomes addicted to a hobby, no one wants to have to go back to the beginning and start all over. But I know I have on many occasions.
With today’s access to information, it is so much easier to get our hands on documents, photos, and to exchange all sorts of information. DNA has changed the way a lot of people look at genealogy. It used to be something only the old folks and the spinster aunties bothered with, if anyone did at all. Now even the younger hip generations are finding an interest in where they came from and who they are. While DNA is an overview of a person’s history, the details are in the documents that follow the family history. For instance, I know that my DNA says I have English, Irish, Scandinavian, African, Jewish, American Indian, and several other types of people in my blood lines. I am also 4% Neanderthal, and more of my family comes from Northern Europe than anywhere else. All of that is interesting, but it still doesn’t tell me who those people are as individuals. For that, I have to dig through a lot of information and then document it all to prove that it is MY family line.
My mother laughs at me when I whine. She had to do all of this by hand on her own while I have access to millions of records and people. But we agree on one thing, no one gets into our site on Ancestry. I am willing to give information on a case by case basis. Why? I got so tired of people simply data mining my site, without so much as a thank you. I got tired of people wanting to argue with me about information, even when I could patently prove that information with all the documents under the sun. I got tired of working so hard, and people saying, “Well, when you get it all figured out, I would love a copy.” But, they sure aren’t willing to do any of the work themselves. So, my mother and I agreed to share carefully, one name or connection at a time. It used to bug me when people were like that, but one person too many finally pushed that annoyance button one time too many. Ask me nicely, as the private sites on Ancestry say, and I might help you out.
Having vented all that, I am still addicted to my hobby. And I still have to go back and start all over on certain family lines all the time. It is frustrating, it is exciting, it is amazing, and it is always interesting to dig around in the past to find dusty documents and stories about the people who make up my family history. One word of advice, if you want your future generations to know about you, write a journal, send letters, or, today, write a blog so they know your words, thoughts, and feelings about everything. Cut and dried documentation is a good thing, but knowing you personally takes something more.
Back to banging my head against today’s brick wall, I know that there is a document somewhere about that guy. No one lives to be 86 without someone knowing something about them. Really, genealogy is an obsession.