Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Lately, taking a small break from my blog, I've been indulging in  one of my perennial pastimes, family history research. From the time I was a wee thing, I was curious about my background and all the particulars. Fortunately, as an annoying squirt, I asked a lot of questions to my parents and relatives regarding the names and dates and every detail they knew of those that had gone before. Scribbling and more scribbling.

On a few occasions, I had met my great-grandmothers but the memory is rather vague. By that time, both my maternal great-grandmothers had reached the ends of their respective races.  A poor old woman in a hospital bed babbling incoherently, her wrists tied to the aluminum railings. And the other, a sweet smile with kind watery eyes in a puffy face, also well into her senility, she tore apart scraps of fabric, thinking she was making a quilt. 

Anecdotes of family history usually only pass to one or two of the succeeding generations and some become quite distorted or mysterious in the passing. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you may find photographs of stern looking people in very shoddy clothes, frozen in sepia-amber staring back at us, giving only the most abstract hint of personality. 

For the last twenty years, I have been going through census records, dusty books and forbidding libraries. There was a great deal of trial and error and, after being certain of my facts, I would inevitably learn years later, that large parts of my work were illegitimate, based on wrong information. So, I would have to begin again.

Happily, the Internet has brought about a revolution in conducting research of this kind. In the span of a few weeks, I was able to collect more information than at any time in the last twenty years. Not merely a few loose names and vague theories but names of parents and maiden names and all children names with dates.

A Turkish friend looked over my out-of control family tree and asked a very logical question. How can you be sure that this information is correct? My response is a question in return, how can you be sure any information is correct? You check the details and dates and then you try to find cross-references from other sources. The more corresponding source, the easier you can trust that you are on the right track. And most importantly, you scrupulously check the numbers. A child of eight is not likely to have a two year old baby. Dead people normally don't get married. And sometimes you have to assume, but hopefully not too often.

Sometimes you come to a dead end and you must accept that fact. If not, you are bound to accept as factual, things that are family tree not facts at all.

Very often it is like playing detective. One of my biggest breaks- which lead to nearly four new family lines, stretching back to the Reformation and beyond- was guessing that Cassie was short for Cassandra. On another occasion, I imagined that a woman's maiden name could have, instead, been her first husband name. It was like finding a magic key that opened an invisible door.

Despite all the benefits the Internet can provide researchers,  there are also some drawbacks. There are a lot of organizations which would have you pay to learn anything. They tease and taunt with promises of information you couldn't find anywhere else. That is a bit frustrating.

Another frustration is the careless type of researcher, the kind that takes a supposition and makes it reality. As with any narrow interest, there are all kinds of "storms in teapots" among the groups in genealogy forums.

For instance, there is the great regicide debate. First you will need a bit of history. At the climax of the English Revolution, the king was imprisoned and eventually beheaded in Whitehall. His family was allowed to escape to France. Cromwell took over leadership but about twenty years later, when he died, the royal family was invited to return to power. The prince agreed on one condition: the 125 judges that sentenced his father to death would be tried for treason and execution if found guilty.

Now as it so happens, I have about four family names that coincide with the regicides, that is the killers of the king. Who would have thought that being a trouble-maker went so deep in my genes? One family in particular is the center of a debate. William Goff. One William Goff did , in fact flee the colonies. He had friends in high places that helped his hide out from soldiers sent to find and return him for trial.

Many of the details of his life are quite similar to the details of the regicide. And so there is a group that believe he is the same man and then there is another group, that like to smile sympathetically and shake their heads. "I used to think that but it is not true." Every time a new person sees this connection, as if for the first time, thinking they have stumbled upon a secret- the whole argument starts to boil all over again.

Frankly, I am not interested in finding famous family  connections. I suppose there are people who study genealogy for all the wrong reasons. It is all past now. Families of great distinction can suddenly be cast into shame and destitution. Things can go awry. I am sure there are more than enough heroes and villains to go around.

But I do like the idea of being a part of the flow of history. That twisting of incidence and co-incidence. The fact that two men dueling on a hill in the morning can be reborn a century later represented by two lovers who marry and lived a long paired life of complete devotion. I also enjoy the idea of people-a lot like me, perhaps- facing a new world head on. When it comes to the human side, human motives and aspirations, violence and hope, dream of building something fresh or the goal of escaping from something abhorrent, all this makes history fascinating for me.

In my quest to establish some kind of order to the generations, I have had a few wondrous glimpses into the games history can play. When I asked my grandfather his middle name, he could only tell me it was Caton, but he was unsure how it was even spelled or from where the name originated. He had heard (though he couldn't be sure) that his great-grandmother's maiden name was Caton. His father didn't seem to have a middle name but his grandfather's middle initial was C, which I came to believe was also Caton.

Last week, I learned the reason for this particular family tradition. A large pioneer family in 1840s. A primitive cabin above a nearby stream. Nine children, which as crazy as that sounds today was just a bit more than average back then. Upon the birth of that ninth child, tragedy strikes and the mother dies in childbirth. Still worse, a few months later, the father also dies, l106eaving behind an orphaned family. The deceased mother's older brother, Solomon Caton, his wife, Martha, and his older sister, Mary, adopt the entire family. Where would they have gone? And so, for their lives, they took the Caton name as their  own. Perhaps it was a sign of thankfulness for that great act of compassion. After all, how many of us would welcome into our homes, nine new and permanent faces?

Sometimes you learn something, perhaps a footnote only, that changes your perspective. For instance, it is 1761. A hunting party, headed by one of my mother's remote relatives, wanders through the rich unexplored forests of North Carolina and Virginia, naming the rivers, mountains and peaks they encounter. To their surprise, they come across a long abandoned camp of a fellow explorer. On a nearby beech tree is carved his name, Ambrose Powell. From this, they named the mountain, the river and the valley after the explorer that had come before them but whom they had never met.

It would take almost two centuries before those two men would meet. After checking the dates and details, I confirmed that Ambrose Powell was a distant relative on my father's side.

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  1. It's an absolutely fascinating subject and hobby isn't it? I had a friend in Goreme who was really into this in a big way. Such was her obsession that she started doing family trees for lots of other people too.

    She helped me to get started at one point, but I'm afraid I just didn't have the patience to continue.

  2. Every day I make a new discovery so that keeps me motivated..but if it were all about searching through micro-fiche in libraries, then I would feel the same. I suppose I will reach a dead end where I can progress no further. I thought about collecting as much information as possible and make a book to pass on to the next generation.

  3. The Internet really has made this a much more interesting hobby as far as I'm concerned. Through one of the online genealogy sites, I made contact with a distant cousin of my mother's here in the USA. He turned out to have a photo of my GG grandmother that we had never seen, and of a relative of my mother's who had died as a teenager before my mother was born. There were no photos of the cousin left in the Scottish part of the family - they had been torn up after she died as being too painful to look at. He was also able to share stories about my GGgrandmother that confirmed my mother's memories of being told that she was a rather unpleasant character! My mother knew she had some relatives in the USA, but this was a whole line of the family that she hadn't realized had moved here.

    I am always very sceptical when I find people who have family trees with gazillions of people in them, and claims of being related to multiple royal families. I just don't think the records are good enough in most cases to be able to trace the lineage of multiple lines of your family back to the 600's!

    Thanks for commenting on my blog. I'll be back!

  4. Eventually my family on my father's mother's side went back all the way to the Welsh kings but as you say, it seems pretty hard to believe, especially when names devolved to Griffith ap Gyllwydin or some such like that. Nevertheless, I faithfully copied it down. I included things only if there was some kind of reference or children names or dates. I figure I am in no position to argue.

    I suppose that it shouldn't be a big surprise that lines go back to kings and people like that because after all nobody in their right mind is going to proclaim being related to BoBo the town idiot or Maurice of the pauper clan. And, of course, aristocrats being aristocrats kept better records. I am however probably as skeptical as you are.
    I am just relieved I didn't find more cases of inbreeding, blackguards or scoundrels! That appears to be for the future generations.

  5. Really fascinating. I wish I had the patience for something like this.


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