My DNA is out there in some lab, being processed, stressed, tickled… whatever a lab does to make the sample tell them it’s secrets. I finally succumbed to the advertising to look for genetic ancestors. I spit into a test tube.
My children would only have half the answers, so I bought a kit for my wife as well.
Years ago, I had began to collect data on relatives. Genealogy can be a wonderful hobby or a boringly tedious obsession. I have dallied in both camps. To a certain extant it can be like collecting notches on a gun. Get the name and date, move on to the next one. You are supposed to be very systematic on collecting verifiable resources, but when the trail is hot, and the microfiche is whirling it can be a chaotic time.
Of course this was well before the internet and electronic databases. Did you know there are certain libraries that have collected copies of all the phone books in California? Books that go back to Alexander Graham Bell. That is something that has disappeared. The White Pages! The Yellow Pages!
The huge minefields that were available were the libraries that collected microfiche rolls of the U.S. census. It was always exciting when the latest census was released. Apparently there is a time table. It is a federal law that the census is taken every ten years.
I discovered that there were several authorized styles of script for clerks. Of course nothing was typed, everything was written in ink, and often with what appears to be a quill pen. And then there was the fascinating examples of curious communication. A poor farmer, with even poorer English, being interviewed by a Census taker that was being paid by the signature. The results were never very clear, and many names were spelled with radical differences.
I was a census taker for the 1970 census. No, I was a supervisor for a large district in my local area. I didn’t travel about with a ledger book, I simply gathered in the mailed responses, and then “processed” them. When I checked off that I had a response from a known address, I moved on. Later, I personally visited the places that hadn’t turned in a form.
Generally, this went well. Sometimes, the occupant refused to see me or slammed the door in my face. That’s when I called the sheriff. Flushed with my power invested by the Federal Government, I got my data. The sheriff was not amused. I employed all my friends and we had a pretty interesting few months. I remember my apartment floor was completely covered with stacks and stacks of forms.
Curious? I don’t remember the last time I filled out a census form. I think the last time there was a question about how many toilets were in the home.
So, using the databases available, I think I managed to find information on about 500 relatives. Very much manual labor, using negatives in dark cubicles. It was a monumental task.
Fast forward a few years and most of this information is cross referenced on the internet, and the data is deeper, and much easier to access. Now, my list of relatives is over 5,000 names.
I have learned a few things. I have learned that the stories are far more interesting than the data. Unfortunately, the stories do not always reveal themselves. I found that many of the “moves” of the families came around the same time as a death in the family. Sometimes it was a parent that was ill for sometime, and children stayed to provide care. Sometimes a child died, and the family moved to start fresh some place else. And then there were the social issues of the times. My family moved West because of the war, my father built ships, so I was born in California.
Sometimes I would find the obituaries with more of the stories behind the individual. I found a relative that was a pastor of a small rural church. They had gathered for a wedding, with the church filled with just about the entire community. Moments later a tornado hit the church with dozens of deaths, only the groom survived in the wedding party.
I did not find any serious criminals, or horse thieves. I did find three unsolved murders. Most were simple farmers, or miners, in the western states, nothing very dramatic.
One story stays with me. I found my great grandfathers sister in a remote mining town in Montana. So remote that it took three days in a wagon to get to the nearest hospital. Unfortunately, she had suffered from an appendicitis attack, and she didn’t survive. It must have been a terrible blow to the family. The grieving husband felt a tremendous guilt and was faced with raising two daughters on his own. I know this because I established communication with the daughters in their old age. They knew nothing about their mother because the father had put away, or destroyed, all the photographs, and never spoke of the mother.
He had remarried after a few years, and the children simply did not know very much of their mother’s story. In my letters to them, I tried to give them the background that I knew. I knew that she was the belle of the county, the last of a large family, and very popular in the farming community. Her mother had give her, and her sisters, a gold watch that could be pinned to their dresses.
Gold watch? I was told that the father had saved the gold watch, and had passed it on to the daughters! I then let them know that I had a photograph that showed the watch pinned to one of their aunts dress. Photograph? Did I have a photograph of their mother? I then shared the images that I had collected, and for the first time, while they were in their seventies, they saw their mother.
Truly, one of the best stories!
One more thing. Some person, who identified himself as a distant cousin, sent me a file of my mother’s relatives in Norway. Scandinavian naming traditions are crazy, sometimes named after the first name of the father, sometimes named after the farm where they were born. Most times they didn’t even own the farm!
It was hopeless to make any progress researching relatives in Norway. Well, this person somehow gathered names, places and dates back to the 1500s, and said they were my relatives as well. A gift that I assume is true!