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Family Trees

Baby Boomers, Fascinated by Tales of Their Famous and Infamous Ancestors, Have Made Genealogy One of America's Hottest Hobbies
Daren Fonda
From the Print Edition:
Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

As a child, Susanne Lucretia Behling hated her name. Kids teased her endlessly about it, mispronouncing Behling (which rhymes with bailing). Lucretia sounded so ghastly, Susanne would pretend she did not have a middle name. And many people wanted to stick a "z" in Susanne or call her Sue, Susan or Susie.

Traumatic as her name was, however, Behling wasn't prepared for what she discovered when she began tracing her family roots. It wasn't long before she realized her name was the least of her worries. She learned that her ninth great-uncle, Thomas Granger, was hanged for bestiality in 1642. Then she discovered there were ax murderers in the family. Benjamin Tuttle, her eighth great-uncle, killed his sister Sarah in 1676. A year earlier, his sister Mercy had murdered her 17-year-old son. Behling found out that her ninth great-grandmother, Sarah Lord Wilson, was accused of witchcraft and arrested in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1692 (forced to confess, she spent at least half a year in prison). She also uncovered an unfortunate relative named Elizabeth Knapp, a Groton, Massachusetts, servant prone, in the language of her day, to "strange and unwonted" behavior. Knapp's story of demonic possession, Behling later discovered, was even recorded by Cotton Mather, the Puritan clergyman and writer of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, who wrote: "Her tongue being drawn out of her mouth to an extraordinary length, words were uttered from her throat, horrid railings against the godly minister of the town. She belched out most nefandous [sic] blasphemies against the God of Heaven."

Surprisingly, Behling is not embarrassed by the black sheep in her family. Their infamous tales have provided her with a genealogical gold mine. "If it weren't for their dastardly deeds," she explains, "they wouldn't have left records. Even the bad stuff makes them more real." With more than 25,000 names in her family tree database, she's not surprised when she uncovers an unusual ancestor. "These people crack me up," says Behling. "I don't mind that it's all out in the open. I take joy in discovering them." Besides, Behling maintains, many of her ancestors weren't infamous at all. She's traced her lineage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, Lady Godiva and the nineteenth-century American suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton, among other notable women. She's even nicknamed some, such as her tenth great-grandfather, Edward Wightman, a seventeenth-century religious "heretic" who made history for being the last man burned at the stake in England for his religious beliefs. Behling calls him her "twice-baked" ancestor because he was twice set afire for his heresies: the first time, he began screaming unintelligible words, which the townspeople interpreted as recantations. They doused him with water and threw him in prison. But he continued ranting and sadly, a few days later, was burned once more--this time to ashes.

Behling became interested in her family's history 25 years ago, when her grandmother, Minnie Lucretia Williams, started telling her

tales of ancestors who settled on the Continental Divide, along the Rocky Mountains. When her grandmother pulled out a dog-eared diary that had belonged to Behling's second great-grandfather, a rugged homesteader who fought in the Mexican War, she was hooked. "I wanted to know all the stories that nobody told me," Behling recalls. The more she uncovered, the more the names, places and figures of the past came alive. Eventually, she posted her ancestors' history online and started a Web site devoted to their tales. A few years ago, she quit her job as a legal secretary to pursue the hobby full time. "It's an obsession," she admits.

For genealogists like Behling, family research--if not an obsession--is the hunt of a lifetime. Why did Uncle Bob trade two mules for a one-eyed calf when he settled in Indiana? And how was he related to Grandpa's great-aunt Clara whose third cousin Emo may or may not have fathered a child with a woman named Anna while fighting the Mexicans in Texas during the 1840s?

For Americans, who have kept extraordinary records dating back to the Jamestown colony, genealogical research can yield much about the nation's social history. At its most basic level, it may involve the separation of fact from folktale, the creation of a linear narrative from fragments of the past. Its excitement comes from assembling the scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle whose finished tableau tells stories as intricate as the vibrant hues of a meticulously painted fresco.

Veteran genealogists say just about anyone can locate an extended family that stretches back centuries. Judging from the proliferation of Web sites, computer programs, books and videos devoted to the topic, it has become

one of the hottest hobbies in America. An AT&T survey released in June 1998 found that nearly one-third of its 5,400 Worldnet Service subscribers used the Web to research their family history. Other surveys indicate that genealogy now ranks as one of the country's favorite pastimes. More than half the adults surveyed in a 1996 Roper poll reported writing family histories. And in the past few years, scores of lineage societies have increased membership, with some of the most prestigious, such as the Sons of the American Revolution, reporting soaring requests for membership.

Why are so many Americans suddenly fascinated by legends and tales of their ancestors? Historians theorize that two events from the 1970s--the country's bicentennial and the Alex Haley TV miniseries Roots--contributed to the swelling of interest. "We're a nomadic people and have always been searching for our roots," says Timothy Field Beard, a fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, which elects its members based on their published works. "Those events popularized the notion that personal history was something people could research. A lot of people started doing it simply because they realized they could."

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