I do a lot of genealogy.
I began after being inspired by my uncle who, back in the 70s, began researching one branch of our family. Genealogy was tough business back then. He had to do hard copy research, planning trips to various county courthouses, and Washington D.C. in order to pour through microfiche and archived documents.
After passing on himself in the 90s, his work sat dormant until one of his sisters self-published a book on his work. Upon reading her manuscript, and cogitating on it for some time, I decided to take up the task of completing his journey through time. The television show ‘Finding Your Roots’ provided additional impetus. After all, it was 2007, and the Internet could bring all of the documents to me. So I opened an account on Ancestry.com and, using his work as my foundation, set to work.
Sometimes, when I feel like it, I’ll spend the entire day exhuming the remnants of individuals long since forgotten. The task may be a more convenient one, but is no less difficult. Names were rarely unique in any given period. It is amazing how many people were named ‘John Henry’ or ‘Francis Marion’ back in the 1800s. Throw in an uneventful surname such as ‘White’ or ‘Smith’, and the field broadens rather than narrows. Sometimes documents must be browsed rather than accessed alphabetically. Sometimes there’s no index to these documents. Sometimes individual court books hold thousands of records. Also during these periods, court documents were hand-written, and sometimes it may have been late in the day and the stenographer wanted to go home, and with speed, their handwriting became atrocious.
As with many others, genealogy often goes from a past-time hobby into a full blown compulsion. Determining where to stop becomes difficult. With every generation back that one goes, the workload quadruples. Many families consisted of at least eight children in those days.
After three years of fruitless attempts in finding my maternal 3nd G grandfather, I finally discovered that my 3rd G grandmother had given birth to my 2nd G grandfather illegitimately, and that the family surname was that of his mother, rather than that of his father.
Consider, if you will, that everyone of you reading this has sixteen 2nd G grandparents. And that every one of those people is responsible for your being here.
Consider that I have successfully researched back to my 9th G grandparents in some branches. It becomes easy to see how having over 8,000 people in one’s family tree is nothing special.
I can recall one Summer day at my paternal grandmother’s house. All ten of my grandparent’s adult offspring were there – along with their spouses – and were either sitting on the front porch, or in ladder-back chairs out under the tall Willow Oaks. Over a dozen grandchildren were easily present. I recall one of my aunts talking to the others regarding my uncle’s time-consuming passion.
Finally one called out across the front yard to him, “What do you expect to find out anyhow, Tip?”
He gave a boyish grin and replied, “Aw, you don’t ever know, we might be kin to somebody rich and famous.”
I recall the hearty laughter which followed.
With that Summer day long gone, not only has my grandmother been swallowed, but her old house, my father, and all but two of his siblings, and even a few of my cousins. Soon enough, all that will remain of that day will be my memory of it.
My uncle would be vindicated, were he still alive, and all of his siblings in awe of his objectivity, for thanks to his humble quest, I have determined that everyone gathered there that day were cousins to both the rich and the famous, for instance: Coca-Cola magnate Asa Candler, along with Lem Motlow, who inherited the Jack Daniel’s Distillery. As my cousin likes to say, ‘Everytime someone has a Jack & Coke, it’s a family reunion.’
I also discovered that they were all the 7th great-grandchildren of a woman named Sally Field and her husband Thomas Jefferson – grandparents of the father of our country – who was named after his grandfather.
However, I happen to feel the closest kinship to my 5th cousin novelist William C Falkner. I wonder if he might agree that, for many people, sometimes the simple truth proves no easy story to tell.