On genealogy

August 23, 2011

Here’s a little secret:

When I was a small girl I had really dorky secret obsessions/pursuits. They embarrassed me, both in their subject matter, and the fervor with which I pursued them.

One of those secret obsessions was the genealogy of obscure European noble or royal families. I spent hours reading Debrett’s Peerage from the library, making neatly spaced and annotated tables in notebooks. The tidy accumulation of data into family trees fascinated me. One generation came after another, and they went on and on, but sometimes they didn’t. I started to learn how history affected demographic patterns, when I noticed that in the 18th century British families had lots and lots of children who lived to adulthood, which had been (and still is) an uncommon family pattern in world history. These patterns in the family trees came because families were able to grow and live due to advances in medicine, wealth generated by new technologies, and other social conditions and innovations.

I became fascinated by the Spanish succession, how the interplay of unions between close family members meant generations of uncles marrying their nieces, and cousins (on both sides of their family) marrying cousins, which both tangled up and tightened lines of inheritance. The fates of nations directly arose from the patterns I saw in the family trees, as ambivalences in the pattern started wars and combined nations. They also lead to sad inherited conditions that eventually ended lines and actually physically deformed the people.

But how could I explain something like that to my friends? As a 10 year old? As a 14 year old? As as 20 year old? It’s impossible. So I kept it to myself.

Then I had my own children, grew older, became a librarian, worked in an archives, learned the tools I needed to research REAL PEOPLE’s histories, and I became focused squarely on my own family’s history. Now I engage in genealogical research as a hobby. Yes, one of my favorite pursuits is an old lady hobby.

But I’ve always been fascinated with history. And I’ve always loved neat progressions of data like those in family trees (or library catalog cards, or lists of Signers of Famous Documents). And I grew up in California, where everything was brand-new and lacking history – read Douglas Coupland’s excellent Microserfs for a fantastic encapsulation of this phenomenon – and the idea that my own family had a past FASCINATES THE HELL out of me.

So now I’ve learned some interesting things. I’ve just scratched the surface. The majority of my ancestors were immigrants, and when i reach the immigrant point, I lose the tools I have to keep following the family line.

My father’s father Sidney Davies immigrated to the United States from Wales, so I assume at least 25% of my ancestors were Welsh.
My father’s mother Alice Bracker was the daughter of immigrants from Germany, so I assume at least 25% of my ancestors were German.
My mother’s mother’s father (my great-grandfather Frank Richards) was the son of immigrants from Germany, so that’s 12.5% more of my ancestors being German.
And my mother’s mother’s mother (my great-grandmother Edith Jones) was the daughter of immigrants from England and Canada.

I know, it’s a lot of confusing data, especially without the cool charts, but basically that means that I don’t know very much at all about 75% of my ancestors because they are from other countries, and I don’t know how to do that kind of research yet.

So I’ve focused my attention on that other 25% of my family that comes from my mother’s father, my Grandpa Alfred Dallas Sloan, who died when I was a little girl and always makes me think of John Wayne. I remember him, and I remember his funeral because that was the first time I’d ever seen a dead body, and I liked getting dressed up, and it was shocking and new to see so many sad people at once, and I enjoyed the wake very much. The wake was the only time I’ve ever felt like i got a real taste of the 1950s in real life experience.

Grandpa Sloan’s family is my American side of the family. This is the part of the family that goes back to the very beginnings of what has become the United States, my country. I’ve found clusters of ancestors that fascinate me. There are pre-Revolutionary War families of English and Scottish stock that lived right here where I live now. Some of them were Patriots in the War. Some of them were Regulators. They lived on this orange land that I walk upon, and I recognize their surnames in the names of things around me.

There are Quakers who came with William Penn and stayed for a while in Philadelphia and Berks County, and later, German Quakers. There are English indentured servants in early 17th century Maryland, working on tobacco farms, dying before their children were grown, short and hard lives. There are prominent New England Puritans, but just a few, but VERY PROMINENT.

Regardless of their entry point and time into the country, most of the lines seem to have followed a route into North Carolina, then a constant progression westward through Tennessee and Kentucky that stopped for a century in Missouri. That Missouri farmboy grandfather of mine went off to the Korean War, came back to San Diego, California, and that’s part of how I become a California girl.

But isn’t that NEAT? I mean, that so many of them lived HERE. Right here, I’m talking about. North Carolina. Orange County and Chatham County. Somehow, of all the places I could have called home, I chose those counties. I chose this place, where my friends and community live and struggle and grow and smile.

I think sometimes of the places I have had potential opportunities to move to in my life, for jobs and school: Ann Arbor, Madison, New Orleans, deepest darkest Connecticut, Boulder, DC, Chicago. I have absolutely no family ties to any of those places. As far as I have researched, none of my ancestors have ever lived in those places. Out of all the places where I have deeply considered living, I chose Chapel Hill, a place where the hills for miles around are littered with the bones of my distant cousins.


One Response to “On genealogy”

  1. Mike Says:

    Heh! Microserfs is my all-time favorite book.

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