“Ye are who ye come from.”
“Why do I care what they did or what they looked like? That doesn’t affect anything in my life now.”
“I don’t understand why you spend so much time tracking down dead people. How is that relevant?”
“I have no interest in my genealogy. I don’t really care where I came from or what my ancestors were like. I’m my own person.”
As an adamantly addicted amateur genealogist, the above feelings are foreign concepts to me. I have never known a time in my life where I was not asking questions and trying to understand who came before me, what kind of life they lived, what their experiences were, and what I could learn from all of it.
It matters to our sense of identity and culture. It matters that we respect the memory of those gone before. It matters that we know, remember, and pass on the stories of our people – tribes, clans, and families all.
It has always fascinated me that I have scores of ancestors who were so very different from me and, at the same time, very much… me! After all, if they had not lived, neither would I. I am the combination of the bits and pieces of them passed to me through genetics. I may have my grandfather’s eyes, my grandmother’s mouth, and the mannerisms of a long dead relative I never even knew. (This last part speaks to the theory of Genetic Memory, which will be covered in a future article.)
As many of you likely know by now, my dad died before I was born. And, due to unfortunate circumstances, until I was thirty two years old, my experience with, and connection to, dad’s side of the family was minimal, to be generous about it.
My parents had only been married less than a year when he died and so my mother did her best to tell me stories he’d told her about his family and early life. But it takes years to really get to know someone and hear most of the stories they have to tell. If you’re lucky, you are gifted to hear them repeated many times so, after a while, they stick with you.
Mom didn’t have the luxury of that.
There was only so much she and her own family could tell me about dad and his family. The things she, and they, told me about him only made me want to know more and more.
His ancestry was quite different from mom’s totally European one. I was always told, because that is what Dad believed, that his mom was Cherokee and his dad Irish. But both his parents were also gone before I was born, leaving me with quite a mysterious and tantalizing ancestral puzzle.
I had so many questions.
Twenty two years later, I am still digging. I have since learned that my paternal grandmother was not Cherokee at all, but from a line of Portuguese Jews who married Shawnee women, were part of the settling of Jamestown, and who eventually married into a family of “red-haired Irishmen.”
The curiosity grew and grew. Fortunately for me, I was born at a time when digital technology was beginning to really advance, just around the time I was leaving high school and entering college. Shortly after personal computing became affordable, the internet became a realistic tool for the middle class. My world of possibilities exploded.
In 1998 it was finally possible – through online bulletin boards and the beginnings of vital records being digitized and made available – to gather some interesting tidbits of my paternal line that I’d never known.
In fact, I was searching for proof of my grandmother’s “nativeness” because it was apparently a fact being debated amongst family members.
Shortly after my initial treasure hunts into digital genealogy began, I received a note from one of my dad’s nieces. She was eager to connect with me and told me my two sisters were as well.
My world changed that day.
Literally overnight I went from being an only child to one of dad’s five children. I had two living – and loving – sisters, and a family of cousins, all eager to reconnect with me. It was an exciting, sometimes overwhelming, and very enlightening time. I learned about Dad from his two daughters, and as many cousins as I could connect with. It could have been an episode of Long Lost Family.
And they all told me the same thing about him – a most incredible man and the tragedy of losing him so young and so suddenly. I must admit it hurt greatly to not have had the opportunity to know him as they had done.
Still I was even more curious and interested in the stories they told me. Things I’d never considered. Photos shown to me that brought everyone to life, long after they were gone.
Today, twenty two years later, I am still digging. I have since learned that my paternal grandmother was not Cherokee at all. Her ancestors were Portuguese Jews who married Shawnee women, were part of the settling of Jamestown, and who eventually married into a family of “red-haired Irishmen,” and mixed in some African blood along the way. They lived in a small Tennessee community where Melungeon people had settled in the early 19th century.
My paternal grandfather was from a line of border-raiding Scots Irish who were known as “the fighting Herrons.”
My maternal grandmother’s family is mostly Bohemian with some Bavarian thrown in. And my maternal grandfather came from a marriage of a small town Bohemian Christian woman who braved the transatlantic voyage alone at eighteen to a man from Prague who appears to have come to America as a “hidden” (secular) Jew to avoid the pogram’s of late nineteenth century Prague.
In my journey, I’ve found things I thought were right that turned about to be totally wrong. I’ve innocently followed down the path of others I thought had all the facts, only to discover they were not verifying and proofing every data point they added to their own family trees. I’ve had to back track, delete, approach the same ancestor from every possible angle – all to piece together a family tree that is more intriguing than any fiction ever written or produced.
In fact, life is truly stranger than fiction.
I’ve learned things about my family that no one before me has known. Stories of courage, struggle, success, sadness, and joy. And it’s a story without end. Just because one branch does not immediately show its connections, does not mean there are not tens of others to explore until more data on the first becomes available.
So then, after me telling you all this, let’s return to the concept of why so many people are endlessly fascinated with genealogy.
I believe it is a yearning to understand who you are through knowing where – and from whom – you came. It is the reason why people who were adopted still feel a pull to know who their biological parents are/were.
A history – either personal, genealogical, or national – directs the present, and allows a future to be shaped as well. Every time, the history must be known first before we can proceed in understanding the effect it has had on the present. On us.
Why did our parents have the rules they had? Or lack thereof? Why did they get more frustrated with certain of our behaviors than others? Why were they so committed to us being educated, kindhearted, comfortable in the outdoors, self-sufficient, confident, etc., etc., etc.?
I suspect it is usually because they knew something about the past that we, at that moment, did not. They were using the past to shape the present, and to plan for our future. Using it to direct us in a way that would allow us to have the best chance for success in life – however we, or they, defined it.
So what happens to all the wisdom of the people before our parents and grandparents? What could we learn from knowing, from uncovering, experiences and circumstances of theirs that perhaps they did not, or could not, share with their own children?
When we uncover our past – attractive and exciting, or dull and boring – we give depth to our own life experience. We know the foundation upon which we are built. And we can even further respect the path our ancestors walked to arrive at this moment we call “now.”
Next time you contemplate delving into your own family history, or further research already begun, or… perhaps even express an opinion illustrated at the beginning of this article… Think about paying respect to those who’ve gone before, who made it possible for your next breath to happen.
Family matters. Your family today, your family back then, and your family yet unborn. They all matter. And they are all part of you. They are you and you are them.
Family matters. “Ye are who ye come from.”
For those of you who are searching, I welcome you to connect with us on Ancestry.com as TheWisdomKeepers. If I can help you in any way, with tips or tricks… or just some encouragement… don’t hesitate to reach out to me at email@example.com.
My family surnames are:
Herron :: Moneyhun :: Sizemore :: Lawson :: Sabatka :: Machovek :: Kasik :: Cunat :: Pek
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