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ONLINE DOCUMENT: GENEALOGY: DEMANDING, REWARDING, SOMETIMES SURPRISING

Genealogy is a good thing. Without ancestors we wouldn't be here, would we?

Genealogical research can be a bad thing. This occurs when one finds a felon in the family tree - or, more likely, a forebear in the Union army who became confused and surrendered to the Rebels at Appomattox.An old friend, a noted historian, used to take perverse delight in telling meetings of the Daughters of the American Revolution: "My family was run out out of Ireland for stealing pigs."

Another friend, an eminent editorial cartoonist, was actually a descendant of the great Marlborough, but preferred to say: "One of the first of my ancestors in the Colonies was arrested for picking peas on Sunday in Boston."

My own ploy has been: "I'm a direct descendant of General Ethan Allen, leader of the Green Mountain Boys. Unfortunately, General Allen had no children that he acknowledged."

Why do so many people pursue their genealogies? Natural curiosity. Family pride, also natural. Social status, essential in places like Charleston and Richmond.

My attraction would be to place my family and myself in the immense river of time.

Getting into genealogy means limitless networking; poking into family Bibles, attics, cemeteries, tax and census records; running the computer files at the National Archives and in the massive depository of the Church of the Latter Day Saints; and, well, ask a devoted genealogist how demanding the avocation can be.

When I was a consultant to the National Archives in Washington, I saw that there were more visitors in search of their ancestors than people who wanted to view the originals of the documents which founded our nation.

Interviewing elderly relatives can be productive, but one needs to heed the warning of Professor T. Harry Williams: "Mother's knee is a right venerable joint, but it is a poor place at which to learn history."

I once asked an ardent genealogist if he thought his ancestors spent as much time thinking about him as he did thinking about them. He said probably not.