Reflections Following Two years of Genealogical Research

According to an ancient myth, the world rests upon the back of an elephant and that elephant rests upon another elephant, it being elephants all the way down. I had similarly thought that the foundation of my identity was my surname, but by the further back in time I went, the less my surname seemed like a solid foundation and the more it seemed like a pinpoint in space. 

Because I exclude cousins, my tree contains a mere 512 names, but even that is too many to keep straight. For example, when I’m telling Peggy about some new discovery, she’ll ask, “Is that on your mother’s side or your father’s?” or, “How many “greats” ago was that?” and I will realize that I had lost sight of the forest while studying the trees.

For some researchers, the point of genealogy is to accumulate as many names as possible and to go as far back in time as possible, and to do these things as fast as possible. The point of genealogy for me is to avoid mistakes, and this means accumulating as much information as possible about one person before I move on to the next.

I’m haunted by the thought that, if I make a single mistake in naming someone as my ancestor, then every prior name in that line will also be in error. To find such mistakes, I sometimes start my research all over again. Well, sort of. The problem with really starting over again is that going over the same ground repeatedly would become so tedious that I
would probably give up my research. For instance, having explored the matter thoroughly, I’m convinced that the Ellis branch of my family came ashore in Virginia rather than Massachusetts, so I’m not inclined to research the Massachusetts’ Ellises all over again. Another reason for my reluctance is that not only did generation after generation name their children with the same few names, eg. John, Caroline, Richard, Sarah, Charles, Nancy, William, Mary, Henry, and Elizabeth; they mixed and matched, often making it impossible for even the most diligent researcher to know which person an old document refers to. The further back in time one goes, the more genealogy becomes a process of educated guesswork, and the thought is ever with me that, no matter how hard I try, I will never be able to do more than to dip my toe in the waters of time.

Another challenge is that it can be very hard to find researchers whose work is helpful because few researchers are even remotely conscientious, most of them using appallingly few sources, and many building their entire trees by copying information from other people’s trees. This leads to mistakes being the norm. For example, nearly every tree that includes my father has his first name misspelled; or it gets his name completely wrong (Thomas instead of Tommy); or it mistakenly applies the suffix “Jr.
I frequently find trees in which people are listed as giving birth when they were six; being born before their parents; fighting in wars that didn't start until a hundred years after their deaths; or living their entire lives in Jasper County, Alabama, but registering their wills in Poughkeepsie, New York, etc. I’ve gone from being impressed by people who claim to have traced their families back to the 16th century to thinking to myself, “Fat chance!” For one thing, 1500 is the outer edge of meaningful research for even the most diligent and experienced researcher. For another, 500 years would equal ±1,048,576 ancestors.
Upon reading 200 year old wills, I’m ever surprised by how little people owned, most of it being things that no one would bother to itemize in our age of automation. For example, in a will from 1767, my ancestor wrote: “I do likewise give unto my godson Andreas…four of my best shirts.” The testators’ slaves (I’ve found scores of those) were usually listed alongside the livestock and sometimes shared the family’s surname. As for the first names of slaves, I
’ve found Richards and Elizabeths but also Caesars and Napoleons. Ive also found slaves who remained with their former masters long after the government freed them.

Most of my genealogical research boils down to the tedious job of data entry, but when I find something like the 1862 letter that one of my Confederate great great great uncles wrote to his wife a month before he died behind enemy lines following the Civil War Battle of Murfreesboro (Tennessee), the tedium becomes worth it.

This isn’t to say that data entry can’t be poignant. For example, it has enabled me to feel affection for a great great maiden aunt (Mary) who was born in Alabama in 1843. By the time of the 1880 census, her father had died, and, except for a maiden sister (Sarah Jane), her six siblings had died or moved. In that 1880 census, Mary, Sarah Jane, and their mother, Sallie, owned a 400 acre farm. They hired eight laborers (four white and four black) to work four weeks that year at a cost of $20, and they reported a gross income of $592. Their largest expense was fertilizer. Two years later, Sarah Jane and Sallie were dead (Sarah Jane at 52 and Sallie at 78), and Mary had fallen off the map as far as surviving records go, only to reappear for a final time thirty years later when she was 67 years old and living alone in a house that she owned free and clear. I’ve been unable to find her grave.

Alongside Mary in my affection comes her maiden sister, Sarah Jane, who had the courage to remain loyal to the Union during the Civil War, this despite having three brothers who fought for the Confederacy and despite being surrounded by families whose sons and brothers were falling before Yankee bullets. In 1863, she was visiting some inlaws when the Union Calvary came along and took her horse, which she later described as “a fine valuable sorrel mare sixteen hands high.” After the war, she demanded that the federal government reimburse her the value of her horse, which she set at $160, and they responded with a list of eighty questions and required that she produce three witnesses to attest to her loyalty. In response to those questions, she swore that she had shed tears of disapproval when the South seceded; had done her best to keep her brothers from joining the rebel army; had given the Union army all the help she could; and had denied assistance to the Confederacy except when compelled to do so (she was forced to cook for the troops). One of her witnesses said that she was a quiet woman who neither hid nor advertised her loyalty to the Union, and that only her gender saved her from being physically harmed. Thanks to the fairness of the Union, my aunt got her money.


Elephant's Child said...

One of my (half) brothers spent time and energy tracking his side of the family. His work led him to cousins we didn't know we had (thanks for my mother's far from close relationship with truth). Some day I will try and explore my father's side of the family. I expect a lot of it came to a dead-end in World War Two, but it could be interesting to see how far I get.
I am not at all surprised that you are meticulous in your researchm and hope you had a heap of fun.

Snowbrush said...

DNA enabled my sister's adopted son to find a half brother that he didn't know he had. So far as I know, their meeting turned out well for all concerned, but DNA has also enabled people to track parents who had kept their birth--and subsequent adoption--a secret, which, as you can imagine, created a great deal of awkwardness. I've already found numerous second cousins I didn't know I had (and hundreds of more distant cousins), and although I've written to a few of them, we don't seem to have much to say to one another.

Emma Springfield said...

You have put a lot of effort into your research. You found some real gems.

Strayer said...

I wonder how Mary got that house 30 years after her mom and sister died. 30 years is a long time. Makes me wonder all she went through to achieve what I would certainly call success in owning one's own home, as a woman, in that time. Maybe she sold those 400 acres. Sarah Jane getting reimbursed for the horse is an interesting story too!

Marion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Snowbrush said...

"I wonder how Mary got that house 30 years after her mom and sister died."

I have yet to find Mary's father's will (or her mother's will, for that matter), but since it seems unlikely that Mary, Sarah Jane, and Sallie would have sold one Madison County, Alabama, farm and moved to another, I assume they were living where the two girls had always lived. When Sallie and Sarah Jane died in the early 1880s, Mary would have either stayed on the farm or sold it, but in any event, at the time of the 1910 census, she was 67 years old and was living three counties south. I've wondered much about why she moved. Perhaps, she had relatives there, or perhaps she wanted to live in a less rural area (the town of Decatur is in Walker County).

"Get this: my daughter Sarah Jane, has a daughter named Mary. Wild, right?"

If that doesn't prove the existence of God, then I don't know what does!

"As my mother's family is From Mississippi, I still say we could be related. :-)"

I THINK you mentioned that your mother was from the area of McComb, which is 20 miles south of where I'm from, but my father's parents only arrived there (from northern Alabama) in 1908. However, I've since learned that, on my mother's side, my Mississippi roots go back to the first half of the 19th century. The furtherest north that any of my family ever got, so far as I've discovered, was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which was where some of them landed when they arrived from Europe (they would have gone upriver from the coast), and they only stayed there for three generations before moving south. My ancestors and their children have lived in every Southern state, which wouldn't be far today, but back them meant never seeing their families again. What does it take to that? I had once thought the main lure was economic opportunity, but then I learned from the newsletter of the local museum that, in today's money, it cost a family $35,000 to come to Oregon over the Oregon Trail, but if you had that kind of money, why would you cut ties and come here, that is unless you hated your family or simply had an adventuresome spirit? I know that when I came here, getting away from Peggy's family was a minor part of the lure, but I wouldn't have moved this far if I had it to do over. I would instead consider some liberal Southern or Rocky Mountain city. To put it in perspective, Denver is but halfway between Eugene, Oregon, and Jackson, Mississippi. Peggy has to change planes up to three times and fly 2,500 air miles in order to see her family. When she told her mother that we were moving to Oregon, her mother said, "Where you be when I die?" Well, she was in Oregon.

Snowbrush said...

P.S. to Strayer: "Sarah Jane getting reimbursed for the horse is an interesting story too!"

I was struck by the fact that, in 1880, she paid eight men a total of $20 for a month's work, yet she owned a horse that had been worth $160 in 1863. Her father had been wealthy enough to own slaves, yet her brother was my great grandfather, and he was no better off than middle class (I know because I found his will), so I'm greatly puzzled by what happened with the way the inheritance was distributed. Ordinarily, the oldest son got most things (if not immediately, then upon his mother's death), the younger sons a lesser amount, and the daughters almost nothing, but if this was what happened in Mary's family, how could she have paid for the house she living in in 1910?

rhymeswithplague said...

Your post is very interesting.

I include everybody. I don't copy, per se, but some of the the info has come from family sources that I trust. There are 3669 names in my file, but only about two dozen are direct ancestors and decendants. I have 3 children and 6 grandchildren. That's 9 right there. On my mother's side I know her of course, both grandparents' names, all four great-grandparents, and two of the great-great-grandparents. That is 9 more. On my non-bio-dad's side (I don't really know if he adopted me, but his name appears on a birth certificate issued when I was six) I know him, his parents (my pseudo-grandparents), and all four great-grandparents. That's 7 more but I suppose they don't count at all. It is on this Brague side, thanks to a treasure trove of info received from a relative, that I claim to be third cousin, 11 times removed, of President Grover Cleveland. But it is a fiction since my dad is "non-bi". On the bio-dad front, the one that really counts, I know his name, both grandparents, and two great-grandparent and even two great-great-grandparents.. That's 7 more. So out of the 3669 names, there are 9 direct descendants and 16 direct ancestors. All the rest of the 3669 stem from the fact that one of my grandmothers was the sixth of nine children and the other one (but she was the non-bio one) was the eighth of ten childre, and my stepmother (again, a non-bio person) was second oldest of ten children. I have a lot of their extended families as branches of my tree. I suppose it isn't, how you say, kosher, but the names have to be somewhere so I included them in my family tree.

I'm sorry that this is so long and probably boring. I may make a post out of it on my own blog.

PhilipH said...

Research such as you are undertaking is definitely interesting and very time-consuming. I wish you great success in your quest. One never knows what your family tree unearths.

I've never attempted such a task. However, a cousin whom I knew nothing about discovered ME, in person about 20 years ago. I was on duty in the main area of Mellerstain House, acting as security and guide, when a couple of visitors approached me in the Library. The man handed me a large envelope, saying "This is for you." He then said: "I am Peter Harfleet, your cousin".

The envelope contained a printed family tree and a photograph of my Grandfather, with a fair number of his children. I was astounded, to say the least.

My Father, Edward Philip Harfleet, whom my Mother always called "Phil", but my Father was always known as "Stan" by his friends in the local pub, for some unknown way. My Father was always a bit like a Donald Trump character; fond of embellishing the truth in many ways. He always boasted that he was "one of 19 children", born in Guildford, Surrey. I never really believed him. And the family tree proved me right!

My dad was actually one of 22 children, sired by my Grandpa - with the help of TWO wives. On my one and only visit to Grandpa was during the early part of the war, when I was about six. Granpa never saw ME, he was totally blind by then.

There must be scores of cousins I guess. I'm not inclined to search any out. I am still in touch with cousin Peter and his wife but they live too far south for me to drive to see them.

I've never been very good at working out relationship terms, apart from uncle, aunt, cousin and similar simple relationship stuff. What, for example, would one call the child of the child of my cousin Peter? I dunno.

rhymeswithplague said...

PhilipH, the child of the child of your cousin Peter is your first cousin twice removed. You and Peter are first cousins, your child and Peter's child are second cousins, and your child and Peter's grandchild are third cousins. But Peter is your child's first cousin once removed just as you and Peter's child are first cousins once removed. It isn't confusing once you grasp the concept. The mistakes come when people refer to their first cousin once removed as their second cousin, which is incorrect.

You're welcome.


rhymeswithplague said...

Oops, there is a tiny error in my reply to PhilipH above.

the part that says "...your child abd Peter's grandchild are third cousins" should have said "...your grandchild and Peter's grandchild are third cousins"

A thousand partdons!

PhilipH said...

Thanks for your explanation, Rhymes.

Snowbrush said...

"I include everybody... There are 3669 names in my file, but only about two dozen are direct ancestors and decendants."

Then you certainly do include everyone! I have no way to know other than to physically count them, but since I only include ancestors and their children (I don't even include their children's spouse for the most part), I would guess that of the 519 people currently in my tree, no more than one out of eight would be direct ancestors, which would come to around 65 people. If you asked me to name them all in the correct order, I don't think I could. I feel like I should be able to (having put in hundreds of hours of work), but I would have to make a list and memorize it to do so.

"My dad was actually one of 22 children..."

I become so disgusted that I want to puke when I think about my ancestors' unrestrained f---ing. I don't spell the word out in deference to Rhyme's sensitivities, but I use it because sex and lovemaking hardly apply when a man is willing to keep a woman pregnant 18 months out of every 24. When I reflect upon what these women went through, I shudder, and it results in me having enormous sympathy for my grandmothers and enormous understanding for why a number of my aunts remained single (no one in my family interests me more than these maiden aunts). I don't know if the husbands back then were unable to conceive of the fact that siring all of the children that they could possibly crank out during their lifetimes might result in a problem someday or if they just didn't care. I also don't know what it said about their attitudes toward their wives, but from my point of view, it looks they regarded them as breed mares. I'm sure they read the part of the Bible that said "be fruitful and multiply," but since people can always rationalize away the Bible's more abhorrent verses, there had to be more to it than that simply going all out to obey God's command. And how DID the women feel about staying pregnant so much? I suppose some might have thought it was good idea, but I think it more likely that they were simply playing the part that their role in life seemed to demand despite how miserable and even degrading the experience must have been.

Snowbrush said...

"I am still in touch with cousin Peter and his wife but they live too far south for me to drive to see them."

I read somewhere that England is about the same size as my home state of Mississippi, so I don't quite get why the distance between you and them would be prohibitive. As I've aged, I've come to regard a trip to Portland (Oregon's largest city which is 100 miles from my home in Eugene) as a major expedition, but I can assure you that most Americans wouldn't think of it as very far at all. There are even Americans who drive eighty miles a day (each way) just to go to work. It's a odious thing to do (both personally, financially, and environmentally) in my book, but they do it, and some even like it, saying that they enjoy the "alone time" that they get while driving.

"the child of the child of your cousin Peter is your first cousin twice removed. You and Peter are first cousins, your child and Peter's child are second cousins, and your child and Peter's grandchild are third cousins. But Peter is your child's first cousin once removed just as you and Peter's child are first cousins once removed. It isn't confusing once you grasp the concept."

This will surely seem odd for someone who takes genealogy as seriously as I do, but partly due to the fact that I spend so little time researching cousins, I don't know what a "once removed," a "twice removed" and so forth are, and am embarrassed to say that I don't really care. On one level, I'm thorough, but on another, I'm not a detail oriented person--like you are, and like Peggy. If I could get her to help me research my family, we would make an infallible team because I would bring thoroughness and order, and she would bring an attention to detail.