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.