Even Old New York Was Once New Amsterdam

Guess what I am doing this weekend? I'll give you a multiple choice format, even though I hate multiple choice:

a.   grading and extensively commenting on thirty 2k word stories that I promised the kids last Monday (and re-promised for this Monday)
b.   presenting the cutest little pink coupe to Elizabeth Joy and Sparrow
c.   rabidly hunting ancestors through primary and primaryish source documents at Ancestry.com
d.   hopefully some well-organized combination of the above

If you marked d, you're probably wrong, but household curriculum standards demand that we try to meet all of the above objectives so you get a 100. Good for you! [Visualize sticker here.]

(I hate multiple choice because when I take MC tests I always overinterpret the question. As a student, MC is least likely to be my friend, which is odd, since "my thing" is that I do strangely awesome on standardized tests, which of course are almost all MC. As a teacher, I love MC, but I let the kids write more info about their answers in the margins if they have trouble. What do I care - it's not like I remember how to run the Scantron machine from student teaching, and I'm not sure I'm ready to admit this yet to my co-workers.)

Okay, so I used to be an Ancestry subscriber. Then I found just about everyone I could in their records and cancelled. I had to cancel three times because they kept giving me three-month extensions to my subscription for free. Nice people. But now they have so much more, and it's much better indexed, and it includes the UK records, so I'm back with a new free trial. Hooray! I haven't found any new people, but I did beautify some of the old trails until the wee hours last night.

All of this makes me think back fondly on what genealogy has done for my life.

Increased closeness to living family members aside, the first thing it taught me is that there is (pretty much) always (assuming a western European/UK background) more out there to discover than anyone thinks. Everybody's got "some aunt" or "a cousin" who has researched the family "all the way back." People act like the book has been written, the stone has been set, carry on.

Whatever! Actually, in my family, I am that "cousin" and, yes, we do go way back. (Although I'd argue strongly against "all the way," despite the literature geek inside of me allowing "people" like Odin and Adam into the family history file -- hey, if the kings we descend from could claim it, why not at least acknowledge this whimsy?) But there's always more! The internet brings new intel every day. Sure, we've lost some records (headstones spring to mind), but if you're a genealogist whose research has remained utterly unchanged by the internet, you're not using it right. Here, hold it the other way. There you go.

Yeah, so back to when I started. First, I was amazed not to have any recent immigrant ancestors. School had left me with this idea that there were pilgrims, then shortly thereafter was the Revolutionary War (full of celebrities), and then lots of people came over on boats through Ellis Island.

Nay, nay, il n'est-ce pas vrai. (Did I parse that right?)

Most of my people were here before 1800, here before the Revolutionary War, which of course has a century and a half of distance between itself and Plymouth Rock.

Second, we've all got a lot of people. More than I realized when I started, despite being perfectly capable in math. (I just can never remember how to do any meaningful algebra with fractions.) Your aunt/cousin/someone who has traced "the family" back so far -- exactly which family are we talking about?

Because, you know, you got back a mere five generations (the grandparents of your grandparents), and you've got sixteen family lines to trace. It multiplies quickly from there. I understand sentimentality about your last name, but there were a bunch of other souls who directly lived and loved in order for you to eventually exist. (I'm sure someday on one of these "distaff" lines I'll discover an ancestor who kept small field mice and let them run in hand-carved wheels.)

So, I wised up about the inverted pyramid mob composing my heritage.

Next, I've learned heaps about geography. Heaps! Like, do you have any idea how blessed huge New France was? Huge! I think back on my Louisiana ancestors, and I have to take a breath to realize they were living in a whole 'nother country, a country composing one-third of the United States. (And for a little while they were living in "Spain." Which, I'll tell you, is really funny when you're researching. The baptismal and whatnot records switch according to politics. Your Helene becomes Elena, your Antoine an Antonio, and your Quebedeaux a Quevedo - back and forth, forth and back, who's the priest sucking up to this week?)

Also, not everyone was always a whatever. Democrat. Republican. Whig. Tory. Baptist. Orthodox. People blend. I think some of my "we've been Baptist since the ancient apes, not that there were any ancient apes, but if there were then Adam named them and Adam was a Baptist" relatives are to this day horrified that (it turns out) our lot is overflowing with Louisiana Catholic blood. (Sounds like a new way to serve of boudin: do be tryin' our boudin rouge, ami; eez jes smuhhhh-therd in that rich Looziana Cat-lick blood.)

Genealogy keeps surprising me. Just when I think my backstory is one big path from the Carolinas to the lower midwest and south, up pop some rellies from Maine. Maine! I've never even been to Maine! Are we talking L.L. Bean and real Yankees, not the "anything north of Tennessee" kind?

That keeps happening. Mike's family is just as much fun - I swear that everyone in his tree has married into a line of Wilsons at some point. Just going a few generations back, I believe he is currently at four verified unrelated Wilson families with a few more in the "probable" hopper. I mean, what the hell? Some day he's going to meet Carnie Wilson and I'll know to just pack my hamster ball and go home. You can't overthrow fate.

Hug a genealogist today. Or, better yet, be one - hugging yourself with excitement because you just found out your "missing from the records for thirty years" great-great-great-grandfather was only missing because you didn't think to look in Louisiana -- bless you, technology and your cross-referenced databases -- is a thrill no true curiosity-seeker should leave unrippled.

22 October 2005 |



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