Friday, October 25, 2013

And Madly Play With my Forefathers' Bones

What is it about the ancestor thing that people find so seductive?

When I was a snotty teenager and still knew everything, I would have said that people who make a big deal out of their ancestors do it because they have no accomplishments of their own to gloat over. Now that I'm in my golden years, more or less, it seems to me that people who look deeply into their family trees are doing what most of us do all the time, which is to try to make sense out of the world we're in and try to find their own connection to it. Looking backward is one way of doing this.

As I've probably told you, I took out an international membership in a few months ago in order to track down the Canadians. That's everybody, actually. A hundred and fifty years ago every one of my then living forebears was in Canada. is a good place to start looking for people back that far, after you talk to your relatives and get some names and places, because they have searchable census records all the way up to 1940 for the U.S. and Canada. I find it easier to sit in my office with a cup of coffee at my elbow than to visit foreign churches for their records and go wading through tick-infested graveyards, the way serious genealogists do. Instead I sit here and collect pretty stories.

The census records are fascinating. They will show you the records themselves, written in the (sometimes nearly illegible) hand of the very census taker who stood on the doorstep and talked to your great-great-grandfather in Dumfries, New Brunswick, Canada, with all your little collateral relations peeking around his knees. It is startling to note that the old boy changed the way he spelled his name every ten years, as well as his country of origin. Welsh? Irish? Makes you wonder.

For the stories of the famous, I have to search the wide internet and read books rather than take on faith anything I get from People on my mother's side were famous. You know about the witch, right? Not a witch, a sweet old lady caught up in the unpleasantness in Salem. There were other famous people in that line. My mother's father's folks settled Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the days when everybody had ten or more children, so I have all these distant cousins keeping their names alive. Major Samuel Eelles. I understand there's a whole society of his descendants, with regular meetings and everything. I could join, I guess. What is he famous for? He is said to have assisted in the escape from England of two of the regicide judges who signed the warrant to chop off the head of King Charles I, when Charles II came to power.

Was that a good deed or a bad deed? Depends which side you're on. Passions ran very high in those days. And speaking of judging people, one of the things I've encountered on comes from some distant cousin in Texas who insists on branding every person who went to Cornwallis, Nova Scotia, in 1760 with a big label: "NOT A PATRIOT." That's because they resettled themselves before 1776, I guess, and so balked this person's desire to become a Son of the American Revolution. But how can he say they weren't patriots? They might have been Canadian patriots. I wonder if this guy is part of the movement for Texan secession. That makes him not a patriot, either.

And so it goes. Am I any more comfortable in my skin for having discovered who I inherited it from? Couldn't say. I have found out, however, that I'm not necessarily descended from the Viking kings of Denmark, which is too bad, since I greatly enjoyed my fleeting association with them. I'll keep you posted if I find any more good stories.

© 2013 Kate Gallison


  1. Kate, the genealogy sections is the most popular division of the New York Public Library. What are all those patrons looking for? Long ago I read a book the name of which escapes me. (Maybe someone else who reads this will recognize it and remind me.) In an attempt to pooh-pooh people's pretentious claims of nobel ancestors, in the opening chapter, the author proposed this theory: If one starts with the fact of having two parents and four grandparents and eight great grandparents, and using a factor of 25 years per generation, buy the time one gets back to about 1490, the number of one's ancestors will in that year exceed the number of people in Europe. Therefore, the author posited, we all have kings and horse thieves in our family trees. It is a specious argument of course, but fun to think about. Even more fun to find the stories of those kings and horse thieves. It's stories that I think we are after in this kind of research. Stories that tell us who our forebears were and seeing if we find a bit of them in ourselves. Yours have such wonderful stories!

  2. I may have stopped. The man who burned up his mother didn't stop me, being Lizzie Borden's cousin didn't stop me, but last night I turned up a 7x great grandfather named John Rogers who said he was the great grandson of John Rogers the Martyr. Who was that, I wondered? Turns out he was burned at the stake by Bloody Mary for translating the Bible into English and denying transubstantiation and the supreme authority of the Pope of Rome. I tell you what, I'm way more comfortable with the horse thieves. I don't want to know that stuff like that happened to anybody, much less people I might be related to.