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.


The document above is the record from the Fourteenth United States Federal Census (1920) containing data on the household of Frank and Edith Richards, my maternal great-grandparents. The pertinent text is as follows:

Frank A. Richards age 27, Head of Household, employed as a machinist at an auto shop, born in Michigan. His parents were both born in Germany, and their mother tongue was German.

Edith E. Richards age 26, wife, born in Michigan. Her father was born in England and her mother was born in Canada, both speaking English as their mother tongue.

They could both read and write.

Their children:
Robert F. Richards age 4 yrs 6 mos
Helen E. Richards age 1 yr 2 mos.

They lived at 1338 S. Olive St., Los Angeles, Calif., in a 6-unit building. They rented their home.

My grandmother, their daughter, had not yet been born. They had recently moved to Los Angeles. My great-grandfather was working on cars in 1920!

The four other families in their building also rented, and they were also white. One of the units housed a single mother aged 49, the manager of the building, with her two school-aged children. The next unit housed a young couple with a toddler and an infant (husband a “general laborer”), the next another couple with an infant (he was a house painter for a living), and the fifth unit housed a couple in their 40s (husband a self-employed real estate agent). I guess the sixth unit was unoccupied. None of the families were originally from California.

I wonder if the three young mothers got along and helped each other out, Edith, Hazel, and Genevieve.

I think this is where Frank and Edith Richards lived in 1920. I think the building has since disappeared and was probably where the parking lot with the two red cars is now. Places don’t last very long in Southern California, they get turned into parking lots.

My mother’s mother’s parents were named Frank Alfred Richards and Edith Elizabeth Jones. They were born in 1892 and 1893, respectively, in Michigan.

They were the children of immigrants.
Their child, my grandmother, is a granddaughter of immigrants.
My mother is a great-granddaughter of immigrants.
I am a great-great-granddaughter of immigrants.

The document above is the record from the Fifteenth United States Federal Census (1930) containing data on the household of Frank and Edith Richards, my maternal great-grandparents. The pertinent text is as follows:

Frank A. Richards age 37, Head of Household, employed as a carpenter at a movie studio, born in Michigan. His parents were both born in Germany, and their mother tongue was German.

Edith E. Richards age 36, wife, born in Michigan. Her father was born in England and her mother was born in Canada, both speaking English as their mother tongue.

Their address was 3839 W. Ave. 41, Los Angeles, California. They owned their home, valued at $5500.

They’d been married for sixteen years and could both read and write.
They did not have a radio.

Their children:
Robert F. Richards, age 14, employed as a newsboy delivering papers
Helen E. Richards, age 12
Genevieve G. Richards, age 10
Alfred F. Richards, age 7
Elaine E. Richards, age 5
Gerald Richards, age 3

My grandmother had not yet been born.

The other people listed on the sheet were their neighbors in real life. Like them, they were white and came from somewhere else, not from Los Angeles. Quite a few of them were also children of immigrants. Some of them rented their homes, some owned them. They were employed as laborers, police officers, sign painters, tailors, launderers, autoworkers, insurance agents.

I think their 1930s neighborhood is now a parking lot for a shopping center. How L.A.

My father and I, 1992

March 29, 2011

Today is Day 1 of my Spring Break trip home to California with my daughters. This morning I found this photobooth strip in an album, and it made me cry.

I would have been newly 14 in these photographs. My dad would have been newly 40. My mom thinks this was taken at the Del Mar Fair.

He is so dark. I know he spent so much time in the sun, but they do say the Welsh are dark. Look at my striped shirt! Madchester! That was the year I tried to do without bangs, an experiment that didn’t go too well. Later that summer, right before school started, i think I finally chopped my hair off into a bob.

My father died in August of 2009. I loved him so much. We had a tenuous relationship throughout most of my adulthood, but I miss him and still grieve for him.

Do we look alike? I find myself searching the images of his face for signs of me.

In so many ways I am so glad to be home. I’m remembering a lot about what has made me me.

An examination of the past

February 10, 2011

One of my recent interests has been studying my own genealogy. I’ve always been interested in family lines, genetics, rules of inheritance, passings of kingships. I pored over the only copy of Debrett’s Peerage I could get my hands on in suburban Southern California. I studied the quirks of history that arose out of genealogies and population growth patterns.

Recently, though, I’ve wanted to know more about where I came from, what’s inside of me, who are my progenitors, and where have we been?

I started to get serious about it when my father died, just over a year ago. I only had two living progenitors. Of all the people who came before me, only two still lived that could tell their own histories. The others had been laid to rest, had become quietly lost to the passing of years and the forgetting.

My mother and my mother’s mother are still alive. I intend to start a series of vignettes from my genealogy. I’m going to not just trace my people’s names and birth dates, I’m going to find out who they were and how they lived. I will not be telling my Mom and Grandma’s stories though; they will remain anonymous because they are still making their histories!