By Larry Scott
When I retired my kids bought me a subscription to a genealogy website, no doubt thinking it would distract me from paying close attention to what they were up to. That was five years ago. I now subscribe to five genealogy websites, have taken two DNA tests, and my wife refers to herself as a “genealogy widow”.
Building a family tree is like being in a detective story where each time you positively identify one suspect, two more enter the plot. And like any good detective story, characters don’t always tell the truth. Genealogy websites enable access to census data, church records, wills, and land sales, and let users post family trees on line. Some of these public trees are based on reliable sources, many are not . Even archival records can be misleading. I was puzzled about the birthdates of three great aunts, until I realized that between the ages of 30 and 60 they consistently understated their age by 10 years when the census man came calling. And my great grandmother claimed to be a widow even though her husband was very much alive. He had left town and married another woman, leaving my great grandmother with three kids, so widowhood may have been wishful thinking on her part.
Another obstacle is the phonetic spelling of names by census takers, lawyers, and town clerks. The farther back you go the more obscure and biblical the names become. I think the given name of my fifth great grandfather was Oresimus, but it was never spelled the same way twice.
I also learned that family legends are suspect. When I was a about ten I asked my parents if I had any famous relatives. My mother told me I was descended from President John Adams, and my father said his grandfather had invented the ice cream sundae. At age ten I considered those two ancestors equally ennobling. In the course of my research I found that I was indeed descended from a John Adams, but not the famous one. My John Adams was a New Hampshire innkeeper, whose highest elective office was town “post rider”. As for the ice cream treat, it was invented by a druggist in Ithaca. My great grandfather, a minister and patron of the drug store, did however suggest the name “sundae”.
I also discovered that my parents were cousins. Although they were very distant cousins, my neighbors felt that this explained a lot.
Professional genealogists have traced illustrious family lines back hundreds of years. If you can connect your line to a person whose tree has been explored, you can quickly lay claim to famous ancestors. This was how I found out that I was descended from the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. I was pretty puffed up about that for a couple of weeks, and tried various gambits to work that into casual conversations. Then I read that almost everyone with European roots is descended from Charlemagne. It’s math. Charlemagne lived 1200 years ago (about 50 generations). He had a long and active life, and as emperor, he probably didn’t hear the word “No” very often. He had four wives and over 60 grandchildren, some legitimate, and others, like my ancestor Bernard Vermandois, born on the wrong side of the blanket. Under any reasonable assumptions about the number of offspring per generation and the rate of descendant intermarriage, there are hundreds of millions of his descendants around today. It would be more remarkable if I did not descend from Charlemagne; but that is harder to prove, and harder to brag about.
Larry Scott likes the detective work of building a family tree.