I recently began a journey that has already consumed many hours (and promises to absorb many more), taken more than a few interesting turns, and led me to some very unexpected places: I’ve been researching my genealogy. This project, born of simple curiosity regarding a single facet of family oral tradition, has brought history to life for me in new and meaningful ways, and has created a major shift in the way I view my cultural identity.
I believe that most humans share an innate desire to know something about where we “came from,” and who “our people” were. We often define ourselves accordingly. To connect with our ancestors, it seems, fulfills part of a deeper need to understand our own place in the world. And if you think about it, the circumstances and choices of each of our ancestors have had a direct and powerful impact on who and where we are today.
Our ancestry—the combination of genetics and upbringing—is an undeniable and indelible part of who we are as individuals, and determines a great deal about our lives even before we’re born. Even taking into consideration the fairly recent concept of upward mobility, political power, land ownership, wealth, and social status remain powerfully linked to one’s ancestry. Our ancestry can create opportunities or present obstacles, and manifests its influences not only through the more obvious inherited characteristics of racial group, physical appearance, and predisposition to certain illnesses, but it also shapes our cultural traditions and belief systems, career choices, behavior, personal values, and expectations.
I’ve always considered myself a sort of displaced Midwesterner—an outsider without roots, who never really belonged anywhere. My pedigree has always been somewhat of a question mark, as my father was adopted, and the records of the orphanage where he spent the first eighteen months of his life were destroyed in a fire many years ago. My mother never knew her biological father, nor did she have any connection with his family. That leaves the line I’ve been researching, that of my maternal grandmother.
Because some of her ancestors happen to be prominent historical figures, they have been extremely well documented, and it was just a matter of connecting the more recent generations to them to answer my initial questions. I could have stopped there, but curiosity led me to explore the lineages of the earlier generations, and now I have identified a number of my multiple-great grandparents. (If you’re not familiar with genealogical mathematics, it’s my understanding that an individual can have as many as 16,384 twelfth-great grandparents!)
As I’ve begun to explore my family history, I’ve been able to piece together fragments that have begun to form the stories of my ancestors’ lives, and they have become real people to me. A few are famous, but most of them you’ve never heard of. They include magistrates and farmers, lawmakers and shoemakers, merchants and millwrights, and generation upon generation of homemakers and mothers. By reading histories of their communities and immersing myself in the history of the times in which they lived, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of them.
My earliest non-native American ancestors came from England in the early 17th century as Pilgrims and Puritans, and I’ve been able to trace them to the English towns of Saffron Walden, Dorking, and Stratford-Upon-Avon. (The earliest ancestor I’ve found to date was born in 1350.) I’ve discovered their religious affiliations and birthplaces, where and when and whom they married, how many children they had, where—and sometimes, how—they died, and what they bequeathed their heirs. I have found houses they lived in and located final resting places on both sides of the Atlantic. I hope to visit some of these places in the very near future.
Through this process, I’ve learned not only how the genealogy “bug” bites, but I’ve gained insight into why it does. Researching one’s family history is a solitary journey, of little interest to anyone but the researcher. But for me it has been one well worth taking. I’m beginning to see myself less as that disconnected, rootless Midwesterner, and more as part of something immense and ancient, connected by the ancestral thread that unites us all to those who came before us.