More thoughts on my ancestry

It is my Dad’s forebears whose lives I’ve spent so much time pondering, as information about them is more readily accessible than it is for the ascendants of my Mom, who was a second generation American.

The more I pieced together the different branches of my family tree, the more it often felt like a puzzle—whereas friends and family were playing online games looking for treasures, wizards, or whatever, I was on a more noble quest, seeking real people from long ago. Every time I found another ancestor, it felt like I found another prize, and was eager to move on to the next level, or generation, as it were. I would try to secure the basics of their existence—date and place of birth, marriage date, date of death, etc, and refer to as many sources as possible to obtain or verify that information. However, when asking too directly about when a relative close to her died, my aunt gently chastised me for what must have seemed to her as a lack of compassion, teaching me a valuable lesson: One of the worst things to do when thinking about ancestors is what we often feel limited to do, and that is thinking of them as simply chart items with generic metadata to be completed. As the tree fills in, it may start to look impressive as a diagram, but it often becomes easy to forget that they were real people—with real suffering, and real success.

To remedy this, I try to write out everything I can about my ancestors. It often surprises me what I can deduce about their lives, especially given that I am talking about relatives that nobody alive ever knew. Items like military records, census records, and wills are a tremendous aid, revealing their rank and military unit (and what siblings or neighbors were in their unit and where they fought), or their localization or movement from township to township, their occupation, possessions, children, neighbors, etc. Collectively these resources can help paint a clearer picture of their lives.

Still, when I look at my family tree and just the life spans of some of my ancestors, some interesting thoughts jump out at me. For example, my Dad’s great grandmother was still alive when he was born. In turn, her great grandfather was alive for her first 16 years. So, someone in our family tree who likely knew of my Dad also knew someone born before the American Revolution.  Now, my Dad is not particularly keen on having this pointed out, but, when considered in context of all the history that our progenitors witnessed, well, it humbles me. When I did that presidential roll call, it dawned on me that presidents we may know little about today were chosen by our forebears. Indeed, my great-great grandmother was 26 at the time of the controversial 1876 election. How did she and her husband feel about it? Their life times encompassed the presidencies from John Tyler to FDR, wars from the one with Mexico to the Civil War (in which her husband fought) through the Great War, etc. The stuff we read in history books was current events to our ancestors. Further, it was shaped by them.

Anyway, I’m still writing and rewriting what I’ve learned about my ancestors. It’s challenging, but so enriching. And, I still need to figure out what and how to share it—I’m thinking that one of my next posts will focus on my great-great grandparents, mentioned above.

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