Saturday, May 21, 2011

The People I Met in My Genealogy Research - Part 1

In 2004, I got the idea to collect my own family history and genealogy stories into a book, and decided to give the book to my family as a Christmas present. I am going to post this story piece by piece here on my blog. I'll also update the stories as much as I possibly can. These stories are also posted on my home page. I'll include links to those stories as well. Here's part 1:

Perhaps some teacher I had way back when should get the credit for getting me involved and interested in genealogy and family history research. My introduction to family trees was through a school project when I was ten or eleven years old (my memory is hazy now and I don’t recall which teacher assigned this project). I was handed a couple of blank family tree outlines and told how to get started. Place your own name in the first blank on the left side of the page and list your date of birth and place of birth in the proper places. Then your parents’ names go into the next two positions to the right of yours, and so on. “Fill out as much of this page as you can, kids,” I can imagine my teacher saying, “Ask your parents to help you, and your grandparents, too, if you can speak to them.” So I did. In fact, I still have the original form that I filled out and turned in to my teacher for that project (completed in erasable pen!). Ultimately, though, I don’t believe it was the project itself that piqued my interested in genealogy. Instead, what fascinated me and inspired me were the conversations that I had with my grandparents while I was filling out those forms. The people they were, the stories they had to tell and the mysteries that were sometimes left behind after our conversations were complete provided the fodder for decades of interest in researching the histories that they’d introduced to me.

Initially, it was my grandfather’s storytelling that captured my interest the most. Grandpa Conrad (that’s what we called him) became an accomplished yarn spinner in his grandfatherhood. He would keep his many grandchildren fascinated for hours with stories from his youth and young adulthood in South Dakota. Fighting prairie fires, playing with Indian kids on the Sioux reservation nearby, cutting down dead bodies from trees while assisting an undertaker, these were all part of his repertoire. Grandpa told me that the Conrads had been Pennsylvania Dutch and had moved out to the prairie in the 1800’s. “Originally the name was Koonradt,” he said, but the family had changed the name to make it more American (as so many families have done over the years). He also reveled in telling us that he was part Indian, Iroquois, he told us. He was a quarter Indian, so that made us one-sixteenth Indian. I used to tell people when I was a kid, “Yes, I’m mostly white, but I’m also one-sixteenth Indian.” It was a point of pride for all of us (more on that later). What went somewhat unsaid, but which still managed to come through in my grandfather’s storytelling was a lingering resentment and estrangement from his family back in South Dakota. He never hesitated to mention that his twin brother Harlan was a nasty ol’ son-of-a-gun and how they didn’t get along. These were some of the parts of the package that made my grandfather fascinating to a young boy who’d never been outside of suburban California and whose family was happy and free from resentments (or so I thought).

By contrast, Grandma Conrad was quiet and reserved. She let her husband do most of the talking, only scolding him occasionally to let others speak and telling us kids to make sure to finish our helpings of her famous three bean salad. I don’t recall my conversations with her or her storytelling much at all. I feel a bit sad about that now because Grandma was one of the most loving and appreciative people I’ve ever been around. The pride she felt in her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren was the dominant feature of her character in my memory. When she spoke of cousin such-and-such who had a successful new job in a new city, her face would light up and the glow would shine through. And when new great-grandchildren were born… well, you can imagine her beaming smile for yourself if you knew her. I’m sad she didn’t get to enjoy that pride in my daughter when she was born. I know how happy this little one would have made her. At the same time, now I regret that I didn’t make more of an effort when she was alive to make sure I heard her stories, because I know she had them – we all do.

Grandma Edie had her stories as well. They came in two types. There were the stories of her youth and the stories of her family history. These seemed to be completely separate in her mind. The stories from her youth mostly revolved around the Thacher School in Ojai, California and what it was like to grow up there in the early parts of the 20th century after both her mother and brother had died. It seemed a lonely youth, even though Edie Thacher grew up surrounded by cousins and uncles and aunts. On the other hand, there was the pride of her family history – particularly that of the Shermans. We were all aware from the earliest age that one of our ancestors had signed the Declaration of Independence. This was a point of tremendous pride for my grandmother, and became one for us as well. It seems like everyone has one, doesn’t it? Anyway, Edie was serious about family history – we all knew that. She had pictures of her ancestors on the wall in her hallway at home. One was a very serious looking man in profile. Beneath the picture was a caption: Thomas A. Thacher, Professor of Latin, Yale University. It gave the years, too, but I don’t remember them. There were other pictures, of course, but that’s the one I remember. Edie was fairly somber when she talked about these ancestors, like they were important, but not “loved ones.” I think her reverence made these historical people seem intriguing – their histories tied up with our own, but not at all like my grandfather’s firsthand stories (or yarns, depending on your perspective). In any case, my grandmother’s background of educationally oriented ancestors made a major impression on us - virtually everyone in our family has an advanced degree. These pictures left me curious. Who were these people? What made them important?

Ultimately, all of my grandparents’ stories got me started on a journey of genealogical and family research that has led to this book that I’m writing. The book combines portions of my family tree, as much as I know of it, with my own personal stories of genealogical and historical discovery. I will tell you about these things as I remember them, so those who read these pages will almost certainly disagree with me on the details (my memory isn’t that good). I make no promises as to the accuracy of the genealogical information I present here, or on the stories I recount. I am not a professional researcher, and I recognize that I have not cross-checked many of the “facts” I will list here either in my stories or in my family trees. I treat them as a roadmap to our family history rather than a textbook. Hopefully the information here will help other family researchers and the book will provide a fun read for both my family members and anyone else who happens to read it.

The first page of my family tree that I will print here is pretty close to what was on that original sheet that I turned in for that school project so long ago with one exception. The Dane sections, beyond Francis S. Dane I and Annie Edmonds (which I later discovered was spelled “Edmands”), were not filled in. I place the full first page of that project here as the starting point for my genealogy. I think that is as it should be.

The best starting point is at Ancestry.com, but you have to have an account there. If you do, start here: family tree starting place

If that doesn't work for you, start at Rootsweb here: Starting place #2. For more detail, click on "Display pedigree in text format".

2 comments:

D said...

I always wanted to trace back my ancestry on my mothers, fathers, mothers side. My great-grandma never spoke the truth. I'll have to do this sometime soon.

Marian said...

I've also wanted to do this and someday will! Interesting blog!

There is a TV show (of course I don't remember what it's called) about celebrities who trace their family trees. It has inspired me to want to do this. I'd love to know more!