I had a lazy afternoon today reading magazines and blog posts. I was flipping through the August 2012 edition of “O: The Oprah Magazine” when I came across an article on genealogy. The article is titled “Up a Tree” by Leslie Larson. The author writes about her first encounter with genealogy research after getting a free trial to ancestry.com.
The author points out that she knew very little about her ancestry when she started. Some of her information was vague and suspect, as it is for almost everyone starting their family tree.
The author makes her first discovery right away. She finds several documents and before you know it she’s back to Ellis Island on one line. She even has luck with ancestry.com’s wiggly leaf feature. Great for her!
Then, my yellow warning lights start to go off. Before the weekend is over she has managed take one line past the 1900 census and beyond the Civil War. Hmmm…two days of research and she’s already done more research than I was able to do in the first 5 years of my research.
And then, it gets worse (or better) depending on how you look at it. Within days she has gone from knowing nothing about her grandparents to having pilgrims in her tree. By the end of the two week period, she has managed to jump the pond to Ireland and has found she has royal blood. In that free trial period, she has managed to take one line back beyond 1700.
Color me skeptical, but I’m a little leery about all these finds in such a short time. It is possible to latch on to research that has been previously done that takes your tree back several generations. But, how many people find it the first time they sit down in front of the computer? Very few, I bet.
My brother-in-law was fortunate in this way. His La Grange line came to the Albany and Schenectady areas of what is now the state of New York in the late 1600s and they stayed there until 1930 or so. There is a long list of researchers who have worked on this tree. Still, it took me a year of research before I was able to connect his line to the trees that had already been done. Even with finding his complete tree back through the 1700s, I still had to verify all those ancestors–a long process. And, even with all this work done, I still have not found documented proof of how his ancestor, John La Grange, who was born in the 1840s connects to the tree. I have no primary documents proving his relationship to the rest of the line. Nor, do I have his wife’s first name. I’m 99% sure I’ve got the right people, but even after 10 years of research, I still have that gap in the tree.
His Boisvert’s were already researched as well. But, even though the tree was laid out for me, I had to piece together what the family knew, bring the tree forward from Quebec, and then, take it back to Quebec again. Though the line was well established, I couldn’t fit it all together until I found a record showing his great grandfather was married once before he came to the US. With all these generations laid out for me I have not been able to jump the pond on either line.
Maybe I’m a little bit jealous of people like the author whose tree unfolds so easily. They plug in a few names in a search box and viola! instant family tree. For me, the journey has much more arduous. Each step of the way painful and rewarding.
My French lines were fairly easy because another relative had already begun research when I got into genealogy. It was already back to 1800 before I got on board.
My other lines were much more challenging. It took me a year before I found my ancestors in Hawaii even though I knew they were there when I started. It took 5 more years before I had enough information to make the move to Azorean records.
My British line is stuck in San Francisco in 1904 on the day he was married. My great grandfather left no information on his origins or his family. He wiped his past clean when he ended his life working aboard ships in the late 1890s.
It took me 18 years to find documented proof of my Australian ancestor’s life in San Francisco and it was only 2 years ago that I realized my great grandfather, Thomas Augustine Jones, had a brother in San Francisco.
The Irish were a complicated mess. Having arrived in San Francisco in the 1850s, most of their early records were erased in the 1906 earthquake and fire. It took me 15 years to work them back to their cousins in Massachusetts. Out of all these lines, I have only made it back to the native country on the Azoreans…and that’s after 22 years of research!
Granted the first 10 years of my research was done in the real world by mail and on microfilm. My work was slower, that’s for sure! Though more records are online now than ever before, when it comes to the two states I need (Hawaii and California), there is very little available compared to other states.
Either I am the world’s worst genealogist or the author of the article was incredibly lucky. I don’t know about you, but it makes me cringe whenever anyone writes about how they were able to type in a name online and they found their family history. Is it really that easy? Maybe for some. But, I don’t think it is for the majority. At least, I have not heard of too many genealogist who haven’t had to slog it out to work from one ancestor to the other. Let’s say I was lucky enough to find my Irish line worked back to County Roscommon. There is no way that I could digest and disseminate everything I’ve learned in two weeks. It would take months, maybe years to sort through all the documentation, input the information, and make sure that I really had everything right.
In some ways, I think stories like this do a disservice. It makes genealogy sound like something you could do in a weekend or within the free trial period of the website you’re visiting. It’s not. It’s a painful process that takes years of work and perseverance. Sometimes you are very fortunate and go from ancestor to ancestor easily. But more times that not, you spend months or years trying to prove that a certain person really is the one you want. Then, you move to the next person. Often times, you are stymied because the records you need are lost forever or not easy to locate. You finally get the record you need and the one bit of information you were hoping for was left off the form. You could give up at this point. Goodness knows I’ve thought about it many times. But, you don’t because you know that somewhere out there is the information you are looking for. It will only be a matter of time before it surfaces.
But, beginning genealogists don’t know that. They read these stories or watch the commercials and think that they, too, will spend a weekend and learn everything there is to know about their family tree. When it doesn’t work out that way, they get discouraged. Unless there is a seasoned genealogist around who can help them get started, they give up.
I’d like to see more realistic stories about research. Sure, there are researchers who get lucky like the author of this article. But, I think the real story is that you start out, make a few discoveries, and it’s very excited. Then, you get before 1900 and research starts to move a bit more slowly. If you keep at it, you’ll make some wonderful discoveries. But, you have to keep at it. I may be wrong, but genealogy research is not easy. It isn’t impossible…but it is not easy.
Genealogist and writer. Creator of the Portuguese Hawaiian Genealogy and Heritage website, yourislandroutes.com