Is there a switch that gets flipped when you reach a certain age that makes you interested in genealogy?
I rather suspect there is. It makes sense. As a historian, one of the things that I have noticed over my career is that people tend to become more interested in history when they have more of their own history to be interested in. The young look forward, not back, and that’s entirely appropriate. Their lives are in the future and they need to focus on that. But as you get older and more and more of your life recedes into the past, the past becomes a much more interesting thing.
And there is no past so interesting to a person as their own past.
I’ve been plinking around on my family genealogy project for a few years now, as time and resources permit. I spent a couple of summers scanning all of the family photos, for example. Everyone has a copy of them now so even if my house gets spirited off to Oz in one of the tornadoes that occasionally grace us with their presence here in the midwest, the photos will survive. I’ve also scanned the small trove of documents that we’ve collected as a family – at least the ones that have come down to me. I included those scans with the photos when I sent them out, so they too will not fall into the hands of the Lollipop Guild. And that’s where things have stood for a while.
A week or two ago I found myself in my office not wanting to do anything of any productive value, a disturbingly common feeling these days. So I decided to return to my plinking.
And I struck gold.
Genealogists are obsessive people, prone to do things that normal human beings would never even consider. High on that list is going through cemeteries, cataloguing all of the gravestones, and putting that information into searchable databases for people like me to explore. I’m grateful that they do such things, though kind of dumbfounded at the same time. That’s okay. People feel the same way about some of the things I do, too.
I stumbled into one of these databases and there, on my first try, was my great-great-grandmother. I was actually looking for her daughter, who had the same name, but there you go. Most of the information on her record lined up well with the papers I already had, so I’m pretty certain it was her. She had a lot of children, and all but one of them were listed as descendants in the database (the one, of course, being my own great-grandmother, the one I was originally looking for, but in the defense of the database she was buried in a different cemetery so the connections might not have been clear to the people who built it). My great-great-grandmother’s record also listed her parents.
And their parents. And so on.
I tracked this back to a guy named James Taylor (presumably not the singer), who was born in 1797 in Ireland and, if his children are any indication, arrived here sometime in the first third of the nineteenth century. I’m not sure what part of Ireland he was from – I’m guessing the northern part, since that’s where most of the Protestants live and I come from a long line of those – but there it is.
I also found the Civil War vet whose discharge papers my parents had framed and hanging on their wall back in the old house. He was one of those 90-Day Wonders at the beginning of the war, when everyone thought it would be a short, glorious victory for their side and be done by Christmas. His company served in some of the campaigns of the summer of 1861 before reaching the end of its service and being mustered out in August, whereupon he presumably went back to being a blacksmith since he does not appear to have thought enough of military service to reenlist.
On the other side of my family, I found my great-uncle John and his wife, who it turns out are buried here in Wisconsin, not all that far from where Kim grew up. I’ve been to that town, actually. It has a bar with a jackalope on the wall. I was there when my great-aunt was still alive, in fact, though I had no idea she was there or even what her name was, to be honest. John died in the early 1970s and we sort of lost track of her after that.
All of these people had siblings and inlaws and children, so there are all sorts of new avenues to explore now.
I can see this becoming a big project at some point soon.