Where do you come from?
This is the question that started me off. I was first asked when I was in middle school, and I called my Grandparents to find answers to a school project. I remember vaguely my grandmother arguing the difference between New England and southeastern Canadian immigrants who made their way to California, where she and her husband were both born. I wasn't very interested in the discussion at the time- I knew my mom's father was 100% Norwegian, and that seemed to be enough for school. My mom's grandfather had immigrated from Italy. I had had a great grandfather who was a boxer called the "Mormon Whirlwind" which was a source of laughter rather than historical interest. My dad's family were Irish and had come over during the potato famine- this greatly amused me as a child because I have always hated potatoes. This gave me an excuse- a hereditary distaste for the food which drove my family out of Ireland.
It was this connection which ended up being the key to my desire to learn more about all of my ancestors. I was visiting Dublin when I stopped by the tall ship Jeanie Johnston and took a tour to learn more about the famine ships and their passengers. It was very interesting and distressing, but I remained at a distance to it until the end, when the tour guide offered to connect us to our ancestors.
"If you know the name of your ancestor, or the year and location they landed, we can give you more information about the ship which carried them, and from where in Ireland they traveled."
It intrigued me immensely. I knew in a distant way that I'd had ancestors travel to America because of the famine. The idea that I could find them, that I could see the place where they'd lived in their home country, that I could learn more about their lives before and after their journey, was fascinating. I realized that although I'd been telling people for years "I'm from England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Norway and Italy" I didn't really know anything about my ancestors who had traveled from these places. I didn't know anything about my antecedents except what my parents (and briefly my grandparents) had mentioned. It didn't seem essential to my person- I was a mutt, as many Americans are. It was part of my identity only insofar as I had this mix of ancestry and I was proud of that. But why?
I started collecting information. I joined FamilySearch and other genealogy websites in January of 2015, all of which needed a name or a date or a place, none of which I knew. I asked my parents, who didn't have much more data on their grandparents than I did. Luckily, my maternal grandfather had recently put together a booklet containing information on all four of my maternal great-grandparents. I had a place to start, but it wasn't what I was looking for- my Irish ancestors were on my Dad's side of the family, and I had been intrigued by Ireland. I started asking my aunts and uncles for any information they might have. For months I made progress only on one side of the family- then in the summer, a USB drive got mailed to me. It contained all the important files and photos from the small box in my cousin's house with material regarding my dad's ancestors. It was a breakthrough, in some ways. I was enchanted, looking through every paper, trying to determine who was in the photographs and who they were to me. I tried to decipher the shape and progress of my ancestor's lives based solely on the papers which had been deemed important enough to keep by three or four successive generations.
I began expanding my tree on Ancestry.com, using their neat feature where you can import data from other people's trees- I didn't realize how many faults and errors I might be taking in unknowingly. Soon my tree contained hundreds of people with very few references I had actually checked. I didn't know anything about starting a genealogical research project- I just wanted to know where I came from, and I went for it. I searched each branch of my family tree until I reached an ancestor who had been born in another country. Then I moved on to the next grandparent, and tried to find out from which countries my ancestors had immigrated.
What I found was incredible. Scottish kings and Mayflower passengers joined Norwegian saints and Mormon boxers among the ranks of my antecedents. How could anyone not be intrigued by two great grandmothers born two years apart in the same town in Minnesota whose grandchildren had met a hundred years later in southern California without knowing their own history? Who could not be excited by the fact that their ancestors had had illegitimate children at age 16 about whom their descendants had no knowledge? My father was particularly enchanted with the discovery that in the 1700s his ancestors had lived in the same town in Connecticut where he and his wife had moved in their twenties. He'd had no idea that he was moving to a town which had, 300 years before, been occupied by his own family members, bearing his last name.
I discovered that my parents and grandparents had known a lot more than they mentioned. Every time I brought up an obscure family member I'd been proud to make a connection with, my mother or father would say "Oh yeah, I think my parents mentioned that when I was a kid." or "Oh right, didn't you know that about your great uncle?" and my mouth would drop open and my eyes would narrow and I would reply "Why didn't you tell me earlier?" They had forgotten, or wouldn't have been able to give me the name or date I wanted, or assumed I knew, or didn't think I would be interested. I had become interested in everything. Every little detail of my family's lives for four hundred years interested me now.
The Learning curve
Since those intrepid days of early exploration, I've learned a lot. I am more careful in my research now, verifying sources, checking dates and census records and names. I've visited numerous town halls, looked at faded ink on old parchment, carefully preserved between plastic sheets in dark backrooms. I've looked in genealogy libraries in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Texas. I've applied to join the Society of Mayflower Descendants with a grueling application process which changed the way I looked at my genealogical research. You can read more about that process here: Joining the Mayflower Society. I've had ten of my family members spit into tubes so I can examine their results from AncestryDNA. I've joined the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), Utah Genealogical Society (UGS) and the National Genealogical Society (NGS). I've discovered so much about my own ancestors and their stories, and there is so much left to learn. But my interest in the subject now extends beyond my personal family line, and I am doing what I can to learn how to do this all the time.
Genealogy gets under your skin, I think. It intrigues you with stories of people whose lives have gone by, who no one may know about or care existed until you come along and are delighted to see their name in a two hundred year old census record. Until you are ecstatic to discover that they were 5'4" tall with brown hair and hazel eyes. Until you dive as deeply into the corners of their life as you can reach- trying to find any piece of information you can about what they did, how they spent their days, what impelled them to take such amazing journeys across the world, across the country, into war or away from it.
I've visited some of the grave sites of my ancestors. I stepped across the driveway which now intersects the land where they once lived. I've touched documents they've written, photographs they've taken, and even stared under glass at artifacts they once owned. It touches me, somehow, in a way I don't expect nor understand, to stare a grave from 1822 which bears the name of a man I'm so far removed from having met- a man who died so long ago that not even my great grandparents knew him- and yet, I feel connected to him. It is an odd feeling, but one I would not give up for a lack of it.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG) at the end of January. I spent a week learning about tracing immigrant ancestors, programs to further my education in genealogy, and how to become a professional, accredited and certified. I met many wonderful people, and I am happily anticipating further work with genealogists. It was incredibly rewarding to be able to talk about genealogy, and my experiences in that field with people who were just as eager to share their experiences and describe their own genealogical desires and adventures. It was wonderful to be able to visit the Family History Library, and I anticipate making much use of it in the future! I have relocated myself to Salt Lake City, in high anticipation of my proximity to the heart of genealogical research in the United States.
Even during that week, I began further studies into professional genealogy. I was a little overwhelmed at first by the vast array of resources available to help new genealogists learn about the field. Those are by no means the limit of the resources available either. I wrote about these in a blog post: Learning about Genealogy. So now I've taken classes, both at SLIG and online, I've acquired books, and I've made some friends who can help me out with my genealogical work. I'm learning how to do research reports, how to properly format citations, and I'm taking classes in genetic genealogy, a magnificent area of specialization I broadly covered in this blog post: Genetic Genealogy. I'm doing everything I can to prepare myself for the work I am excited to delve into.
RootsTech, a huge genealogy conference which takes place in Salt Lake City every year, was tremendous fun. I was very excited to be able to attend, having just moved out to Salt Lake! The sessions were very interesting, but the Expo Hall absolutely overwhelmed me. I have a little follow up to do, mostly in getting extended family members to take all the DNA tests I bought and reading all the books I purchased! You can read more about my first RootsTech experience here.
What comes Next?
I'm currently working for Ancestry ProGenealogists as an Associate Genealogist specializing in Unknown Parentage. I have been working for Ancestry since February 2017. The opportunity to do Genealogy for a living is not a common one, and I am a part of one of the biggest companies which offers genealogical services to the public.
I have completed Genealogy courses by the National Genealogical Society and received a certificate from Boston University. I have attended I4GG in 2017, SLIG in 2017 and 2018, and will be attending again in 2019, taking Tom Jones' last session in Advanced Genealogical Methods.
I am currently working on an application for recognition of my Italian citizenship through my mother's line, as well as an application to the Daughters of the American Revolution through Patriot Ancestor Azariah Bliss.
Any other updates will appear here!