Genealogists are as relentless as John Wayne in tracking their families
by Jane C. Elkin
As John Gadd fills in the limbs of his family tree, he revels in every twig of personal history that transforms his ancestors from anonymous strangers to characters with real life stories.
John Gadd is a man with a mission. He haunts his favorite library researching his family’s history, digging through public records in musty old books, on microfiche and microfilm and on the Internet. He’s spent 13 years meeting his family. It will take a few more, he estimates, to complete just the research on his paternal line.
As he fills in the limbs of his family tree, he revels in every twig of personal history that transforms his ancestors from anonymous strangers to characters with real life stories. He longs to give each one of them voices to tell their story: the Revolutionary War soldier wounded in battle, the tailor and constable, the many women and children who died too young.
So fervent is Gadd in his quest that he sought out a handwriting analyst to trace the authorship of the many handwritten notes in three family Bibles that date from 1763 to 1989.
I was that analyst.
At the restaurant where we met, he spread the Bibles and antiquated letters over two tables.
Gadd is at that precious stage of life, retired but not in the best of health, and his palsied hands conveyed patient urgency as he sorted through the crumbling documents that will fill in the blanks of a narrative on which he is already working with writers. My mind swam as he interrupted his own narrative to introduce yet another thread of the story. He wanted me to grasp every detail of the family he had come to know through a lifetime of oral history and a decade of painstaking research.
He understands that the result will matter less to his siblings and children than to future generations, but the work matters very much to him right now. What began as a quick search to appease his elderly mother has becomes his life’s obsession.
In his driven quest to reconstruct his family history, John Gadd is not alone.
The Search Party
Genealogy’s popularity is growing. It ranks as the Number One hobby in America, ahead of quilting, stamp collecting and golf. But the veracity of that distinction hinges on survey respondents’ avowed interest in family history, an unquantifiable qualifier at best. Still other statistics support the cause. Some 19 million researchers are active nationwide. Genealogy is a hot topic on the worldwide web, generating over 7,000,000 hits on one search engine. Locally, the Maryland State Archives lists 43 professional genealogical researchers.
The numerology of devotion provokes many questions. What kind of person does this? Why? To what end? How? For how long? At what price? These questions so intrigued Pamela J. Drake of California State University at Fullerton that she made them the basis of her master’s thesis in psychology.
Among her findings:
• 73 percent of genealogists are at least sixth-generation Americans.
• Genealogists and family historians are the preferred titles, but more creative hobbyists title themselves super-sleuth, treasure hunter and dead people collector.
• Genealogists come in both genders and a wide range of ages. But at least in Anne Arundel County, youth blocked my friend Roswitha Ennema’s entry into a historical society she intended on joining at its president’s invitation. The group met at a senior center, and she looked 20 years too young.
Drake’s research subjects were so devoted that the vast majority belong to five or more on-line genealogy or family history groups. Nearly all had traveled at least 20 miles to conduct their research. The average time spent in their quest? Fourteen years! And with increased experience comes increased devotion to the task.
Most, Drake concluded, are generative individuals who, like Gadd, “have a conscious concern with leaving knowledge for future generations.” For the more transient, there is the added incentive of finding one’s sense of place. Some also hope to discover something exciting in their family history that will help them transcend their daily reality. If that something is glorious or exotic, so much the better.
This revelation jives with my observations on human nature. For instance, when my teenage daughter first heard the unsubstantiated rumor that her great, great, great grandfather was minor Polish nobility who was disowned by his family for marrying a Jewish girl, her adolescent mind tweaked it to become I am descended from a Jewish princess! She was thrilled by the exotic notion that she was special in ways she’d never dreamed. But in the minds of my ancestors who leaked the information in hushed tones, it was a scandal to be covered up.
Youthful romantic notions aside, the goals of researchers are varied. I visited some of their favorite haunts to find out just what motivates them. That is how I met Nancy Allen and her husband Dean, who sometime staff the Family History Center at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Annapolis. Theirs was the only car in the parking lot when I arrived late one chilly Saturday morning. During our lengthy and engrossing interview, a few patrons wandered in.
From 25 years’ experience as researchers and volunteer librarians at the library, they’ve learned that some genealogists take the Joe Friday just-the-facts approach. Others are more curious in their quest. “Some go to great lengths to cover up something, while others are looking for the horse thief,” says Nancy Allen.
The author of my family’s genealogical web site has seen that the facts of family history often carry an emotional charge to the descendants who learn them. “Family pride is only normal, but genealogy is a collection of facts not opinions,” he wrote. “Incidents happened, and some were good and some were bad. My own father deserted from the U.S. Navy, a fact I found years after he died. I tell the fact without hesitation, but I do notice that siblings hesitate to repeat it. I think it is like Christmas letters … usually emphasiz[ing] activities which glorify the family.”
George Jones is another veteran researcher I met during my visits with Gadd at the Maryland State Law Library. After 13 years at the avocation, Jones seeks substantiated facts foremost. “It is the only way that I know I have found everyone and that I have found the right persons to list in my family tree,” he says. But he also wants details that add humanity to the names: physical descriptions, education and work experience, hobbies, friends, likes and dislikes.
He refers to his grandmother as a case in point. She lost an eye to medical malpractice but never sued the doctor, believing that, she said, “God must have wanted me to carry this burden.” He further recalls that because she and her husband were poor people with a large family to support, they could not afford a glass eye, and that her empty socket “scared the heck” out of him. The same grandmother was so meticulous she even ironed dust rags. “When you take these facts and couple them with other data,” Jones says, “you can get a good mental image of the person she was.”
Confronted with so much information, deciding where to focus can be daunting. There are three ways to do genealogy, Jones explained to me. Simplest is the pedigree method, a mere listing of the male heads of households, which produces a couple dozen names. The second approach, listing all heads of households regardless of sex, is a much more time consuming and expensive endeavor; 10 generations can easily produce over 120 people. Finally there is the total family history approach, which tracks all siblings in all families. Given the relative novelty of birth control, this approach leads to hundreds or even thousands of relatives.
Jones adds a further caution: “Your tree is alive. While you are tracing backwards, your living relatives are still having babies.”
Picking Up the Trail
Once you decide what to look for, how do you find it? Our experts all agreed that despite the Internet, and even because of it, there is still no substitute for on-site investigation. Schools, hospitals, churches, unions, veterans’ organizations, town halls, government offices, jails, censuses, newspapers and specialty libraries are all invaluable sources of primary research.
“To really dig into your family roots, you must visit cemeteries no pun intended,” Jones advises. “Oftentimes you will find a marker for a child you knew nothing about or a first spouse who died before the grandparent you knew.”
Ennema loves the collection of old phone books at the Washington headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution because they list not only names and addresses, but occupations as well.
Nancy and Dean Allen have compiled 25 years of experience researching genealogy as volunteers at the Family History Center at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Annapolis.
Gadd located his first birth certificate in just two hours, after having paid $10 and waited three weeks for the Maryland Archives to do an unsuccessful search. He claims it was the best $10 he ever spent because it taught him an invaluable lesson: If you want something done right, do it yourself.
But the Internet has changed the game forever, and it is a mixed blessing. In the Allens’ quarter-century at the Family History, they have seen the online revolution swell the information available to their clients as the rate of visitors to the library has diminished.
Excited about the new possibilities, Nancy regrets that more people in a church that actively encourages genealogical research do not take advantage of this offering. “Many church members think their pedigree charts are complete just because Aunt Minnie did them back in the 1950s. But they don’t realize how much more information is available now.”
On the flip side, however, she laments the social impact. “Before we had so many computer programs, people came more frequently and stayed a long time. Now a small sense of security keeps them away. We don’t have the same sense of community we used to have.”
There are many good genealogical websites, but the information gleaned from them must be taken with a grain of salt: Interactive in nature, they can be unreliable as to content. Commercial web sites promise you millions of records, but they do not promise you accuracy.
Even original records maintained by the government have errors, Allen says. “But commercial web sites are full of errors because they have data that has been developed by and submitted by couch potato researchers who do not take the time or have the know how to verify the data they submit.”
Anastasia Tyler of Ancestry.com, the oldest and largest online genealogical database, recommends that “whatever information is found on collaborative websites be verified with original research.” That said, Ancestry.com serves three million active registered members with a variety of free and paid services offering access to 25,000 databases of historical records containing seven billion names. That includes census records from 1790 to 1930 (the most recent year available to the public), as well as the world’s largest online collection of U.S. ship passenger lists featuring more than 100 million names from 1820 to 1960.
Another popular database is the U.S. draft registration records from World War I, which include signatures and which represent approximately 98 percent of the American male population under the age of 46: one-quarter of the U.S. population, in 1917 and 1918.
The draft records are particularly interesting because they include two unique features. First is a physical description. Take Thomas Cruise Mapother, for instance. Who would have guessed that Tom Cruise’s great-grandfather was “short” and “stout” with hair described as “brown and balding.”
The second invaluable feature is a signature, which is solid gold for a handwriting analyst like me.
In addition to records, Ancestry.com also offers free family tree building networks and collaborative bulletin board and chat sites where researchers can post photos, documents, oral histories and the like.
Two months after starting Gadd’s project, I had become so curious about these characters, not even related to me, that I could understand how searchers become addicted. They come to it for different reasons: a mother’s idle question, another genealogist’s enthusiasm, a real-estate deed with a familiar name or the sense of mortality that comes with knowing you are the last in the family line. No matter the motivator, once a searcher is bitten by the bug, each small discovery offers hope that answers to the bigger mysteries may be within reach.
“The hobby quickly turns to an obsession,” Jones acknowledges. He is currently tracking over 2,000 individuals and estimates working about 20 hours a week, half organizing records. Gadd hesitates to quantify his hours. “I could spend forever if a thing called life didn’t get in the way!”
The hobby does not need to be expensive, but enthusiasts can spend thousands of dollars a year. Historical society memberships, online user fees, journals, document reprints, books and travel all add up. Jones declines to name his investment for fear it might deter others from pursuing their own family history. But one researcher figures the total spent so far probably reaches five figures.
In researching his family tree for more than 13 years, George Jones wants details that add humanity to the names: physical descriptions, education and work experience, hobbies, friends, likes and dislikes.
Jones has accumulated so much memorabilia that he hopes to establish a family museum to exhibit it all: clothing, jewelry, knick-knacks, artwork, toys and Christmas decorations and cards.
The road to such riches is not always smooth. Even finding the facts can be difficult, for several reasons. Historical archives are often spotty. The city of Baltimore, for example, did not start keeping official vital records until 1875. That was a real problem for Jones, who also had to deal with the popularity of his last name.
Discretion can be another problem. In seeking recent history, researching can encounter resistance on the part of distant relatives loathe to divulge information to a stranger especially if the facts point to illegitimacy, incest or a homosexual relationship. Ennema, for example, found that women do not react well to a strange female calling to inquire after a dead husband. “There is a trick,” she found, “to approaching strangers with questions about their family. Since many people are distrustful, you need to be candid about who you are, what you already know, need to know and why. Still, some folks are just going to be rude.”
Luck played a significant role for Gadd. Armed with just one page of his family Bible, he sought the original book for years before a friend found it at a public auction. It was one of three volumes that had been gathering dust in a relative’s home just an hour away and he had to purchase them for $200 each.
Any success in this search is sweet, but none is sweeter than meeting long-lost relatives. The Allens began searching for her past decades ago, but didn’t cross home plate until they visited France for their 25th wedding anniversary wherein lies a story.
Dean could not afford a diamond ring when they were engaged, and Nancy had always looked forward to a ring at her silver anniversary. A bit of shopping convinced her a ring was an impractical luxury. “I couldn’t wear it to bake bread. I couldn’t wear it to work, since I’m a nurse. And if I wore it to church no one would notice.”
Dean suggested a trip to Europe, and she found her roots instead.
Try these useful websites and libraries to help you begin your own search.
• Cyndislist.com (over 264,000 thousand links to other internet genealogical websites)
• msa.md.gov (Maryland State Archives)
• Many other states have archives. Some offer free vital records. Call 800-235-4045/410-260-6400
• archives.gov (National Archives and Records Administration) Call 1-86-NARA-NARA- or 1-866-272-6272
• mdgenweb.org (Maryland GenWeb Project)
• FamilySearch.org (The Latter Day Saints Church website). LDS has the largest collection of genealogical data in the world, from almost every country in the world. Their records can be rented for $5.50 month per microfilm/fiche, for use in their reading room at the Family History Center at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 1875 Ritchie Hwy, Annapolis: 410-757-4173
• The Anne Arundel Genealogical Society’s Kuethe Library, 5 Crane Hwy SE, Glen Burnie. 410-760-9679
On their second of four trips, she hit paydirt. Dean used his rusty French to ask around a village for someone with Nancy’s surname, and an older woman replied, “C’est moi!” They’d found the widow of Nancy’s second cousin.
She took them home and rounded up 20 kinsmen for a potluck dinner. In perusing old family photos, Nancy marveled at the resemblance. When she asked why her family had left France, they replied, We hoped you could tell us! The evening finished with a sing-along. When Nancy, who does not consider herself much of a singer, was urged to lead her new-found family in song, she reluctantly began “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile …”
To her surprise, they all knew it. The older generation had learned it from American GIs and passed it down.
These new friends and family had all been strangers just hours before. That is why Nancy Allen says, “My family is my diamond.”
The Search Continues
In the two months since I last saw John Gadd, he has traced another family member’s roots back to colonial Londontowne and completed a life summary of the ancestor he presumes to have begun keeping records in his first family Bible. He now knows how the book passed from Queen Anne’s County to Baltimore and is researching its origin, since the title pages are missing. A publication date will supply him with the key piece of information he needs to verify the original owner, and he will be one step closer to completing his puzzle.
As for my handwriting identification work, I have positively identified one author in Gadd’s oldest family Bible and am on the scent of two more who followed. It’s a good start, but there is still a long way to go. As a result of this work, I find myself musing about starting my own research one of these days … when I have the time.
Starting Your Party …
“When someone asks me if they should start to research their family, I always answer in a resounding, yes,” says Jones.
“I also tell them to be prepared to find great joy, excitement, some heartbreaks. I tell them that to be organized is extremely important in terms of filing data, insuring accuracy and recording where the data came from. I usually copy the cover and first page of any book I take data from and where [what library] that book resides in case I need to revisit the source.
“I think of and speak about my ancestors as often as possible. There is an old western United States Indian tribe that believes that as humans, we die three times. The first time we die is when we take our final breath. The second time we die is when our bodies are committed to the grave. The third and final time we die is when our names are spoken for the last time.
“Do not let your ancestors die that final time. Speak their names often, write down yours and their histories, so your descendants will keep them and you from dying that final death.”