There are many reasons for starting a family tree. Everyone has a reason, some search for ancestors to boast about. Some look for answers to who they are and where they come from. Others enjoy solving the mystery of who came before them. I fall into the third category. I love the mystery and adventure of finding an ancestor. Anyone’s ancestor.
Over the past decade I have helped many people explore their family trees. In my role as librarian I have taught hundreds of adults how to navigate the library version of Ancestry.com so that they can independently research their genealogy. For those of you who don’t know the library version is free. You can’t build a tree online but you can search all the databases. You can print out copies of forms and records at the library or email them to yourself to view later. All you need is your library card and a seat in your local library.
I also pounce on friends and relatives and ask them what they know about their family history. And I offer to do a little sleuthing for them. My method of gathering initial information is to divide a page into three columns. first column is anything they know about their father’s family. The third column is anything they know about their mother’s family. The anything includes names (first, last and nicknames), places (that people mentioned and they heard as children), occupations and siblings (of parent or grandparents). The middle column contains family legends, stories, questions, memories and locations (where they thought the family originated, where they lived, Welsh china handed down from immigrating ancestors). From those notes I begin the search. I find out things they didn’t know. I confirm or refute family legends. I give them doorway into their past. Some of my victims have discovered that their forebears have fought in the Revolutionary War as Patriots or Tories. One was descended from Daniel Boone, another was hanged as a murderer, one started the civil war as a confederate and ended fighting for the union, another married several women without divorcing anyone, and one even charged admission to view the alley behind his shop where Jack the Ripper had killed one of his victims.
Why do I do it? Why do I research other people’s family? For the thrill of solving a mystery and finding interesting people. My ancestors were farmers who stayed in one place for 200 years. I know them and love looking back at the things they did, But I miss the thrill of that first discovery. So I explore other people’s trees and relive that excitement of finding the elusive ancestor.
I have loved watching “Finding Your Roots” on PBS since it began. I am fascinated with how they have used DNA to locate unknown parents and grandparents. Henry Gates Louis Jr. leads his guests through a magic journey that ends with them finding family they never knew about before. I wish had the resources to do the miracles they do on that show. But I don’t so I will continue to try in my own way to put other people on the path to climbing their own family tree.