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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

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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."

Demographics may also have a lot to do with it. With older baby boomers approaching retirement age, the roots quest has taken on fresh urgency for millions. "As we get older we get more interested in reflecting on our own life experiences and placing them in historical context," says Ralph Crandall, executive director of the 153-year-old New England Historic Genealogical Society. In the last decade, membership in the society, the world's largest and oldest, has risen 65 percent, to 17,500. Crandall speculates that restless boomers are seeking ways to form closer bonds with the past. "It's a way of resisting the rootlessness in our society," he says. "It's a struggle against anonymity. For many people, it's become important to establish their place in their family, and they want to pass down that knowledge."

Thanks to the digital revolution, genealogical research is easier to do. New computer software has simplified the sometimes daunting task of keeping track of relatives separated by time and geography. Broderbund's Family Tree Maker, a best-selling program, enables users to organize kin on graphically intuitive trees; its deluxe edition includes a CD-ROM packed with genealogical databases. With more than 2 million copies sold, it's become one of the company's most popular items. The software's online component has won fans, too, allowing users to set up a home page and search the Web for other amateur genealogists who may be tracing the same surnames.

The Internet has also become a genealogical mecca. With thousands of sites added daily, it offers family historians an array of valuable resources. Many researchers use it to find records and make contacts that would otherwise require lengthy letter writing campaigns or trips to remote archives. At one site (www.ancestry.com/ssdi/advanced/html), researchers can access the Social Security Death Index, an archive of more than 60 million death-benefit payment records from 1937 on. Privately operated sites offer even more help. Cyndi's List (www.cyndislist.com), one of the Web's largest genealogy portals, links more than 41,700 sites (and counting)--from societies of Huguenots to Mennonites and Native Americans.

Beginners have been known to abandon their searches at the first sign of so-called brick walls: family branches that lead nowhere or relatives who apparently vanish without leaving behind a scrap of evidence. To avoid getting discouraged, experts recommend planning a strategy and sticking with it. They also issue a mantra for the chronically discombobulated: stay organized. Genealogical research can easily degenerate into a morass of hand-scrawled notes needing a cryptographer to decode.

Even if you have only a few names or dates, plot them on a pedigree chart. Ideally, start by locating primary documents such as birth certificates, marriage licenses and death records. Make copies of the originals and keep them in separate folders for each relative. Then mark your progress on a master chart. Interview relatives; ask them when and where their ancestors were born, married and died; who may have owned land or a business. Look for scraps of memorabilia, anything from old family Bibles to baseball cards, diaries, monogrammed dishes, military citations and immigration papers. An online directory called Switchboard (www.switchboard.com) carries telephone numbers and addresses of more than 120 million U.S residents; if you're looking for an uncommon name, it's a good place to start.

Another treasure trove is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints' Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. The library, whose records can be accessed at 3,200 centers around the world, contains a staggering 2 billion names, with millions more added each year by 75 research teams microfilming records from more than 100 countries. The church compiles records of previously conducted research and keeps copies of birth and death certificates, church registers, census schedules, military files and immigration lists. Some documents date back to the sixteenth century. To request a record, visit any family history center (listed on the church's Web site, www.lds.org) and fill out a form; within a few weeks, a microfiche or microform will be sent to that center, where you can examine it for free.

Once you've focused on a particular branch to research, genealogists recommend working backwards in time. Searching for the last vital event in a person's life--his or her death--often reveals clues to earlier events. Even divorce records are sometimes classified as vital and may be tracked down in church archives, though more often you'll find them in courthouse records. On the Web, the USGenweb Project (www.usgenweb.org) a noncommercial, volunteer site, provides links to state and county archives and resources. It provides names, addresses and phone numbers of local societies, libraries and county registries that can help you avoid considerable legwork. The site also offers advice on how to locate vital records.

Another good starting place is the Ancestry.com Web site (www.ancestry.com), which contains a large collection of free records, live chat rooms organized by state and country, message boards, and subscription-based access to more than 750 databases. Among the offerings are indexes of pre-1850 U.S. marriage records, immigration records that date to the early seventeenth century, and the Social Security Death Index.

Working on the Internet does pose certain problems. Information exchanged online is often notoriously unreliable. A cyberspace name and date may be a poor replica of its paper-and-ink version. Facts can be distorted quite easily. Another drawback to Internet research is the lack of substantive content on the Web. Unless someone has traced your family's roots and placed a history online, you're unlikely to find much specific information about your ancestors. Some private companies archive information and post it on the Web, charging a fee for access. Unfortunately, most public institutions lack the funds to place their records online. That means a trip to the county clerk's office, library or local archive will still be necessary to examine and authenticate primary documents.

Where should you go? If you live near Washington, D.C., or one of the 12 branches of the National Archives and Records Administration, you can look through broad categories of documents such as federal census records through 1920, military service records, passenger and immigration arrival lists, federal court records, and documents relating to Native Americans and African-Americans. Once you've narrowed a family branch to a particular state and county, contact the regional historical society, which probably has a collection of old county maps and a written local history where your ancestor might show up. Town courthouses maintain marriage, divorce and probate records. Some public libraries keep county and state censuses. A church or synagogue may archive notices of baptisms or bar mitzvahs, respectively. State libraries generally house old newspapers, vital records and county information. You may find yourself rummaging through documents in all these locations.

Old-fashioned letter writing gets results, too. That's how Cyndi Howells became addicted to genealogy. Though she's now one of the nation's experts in online family research--she runs the Cyndi's List Web site and wrote Netting Your Ancestors: Genealogical Research on the Internet--it was a mailing campaign that helped her piece together the story of her third great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran named Xerxes Knox. Starting with just a few names and dates, she connected the strands of his tale by sending for his pension application, war records, company muster rolls and other military documents.

The story she discovered amazed her. She found out that Knox was captured in Arkansas by the Confederate army, forced to march to Texas and incarcerated in a POW camp. He then made a daring escape, eluded bloodhounds, and survived a two-hundred-mile-plus journey before eventually returning to Union lines.

What the Web is good for, explains Howells, is developing a network of contacts. Since going online, she's discovered 19 new cousins. "If you can trace your roots back to the War of 1812, you may find that someone else has already researched the line back to the Revolutionary War," she says. As for doing research on the Internet, says Howells, "checking primary documents is the only way to be absolutely certain you're not making errors." She recommends planning family vacations with a research goal in mind. Last year, while vacationing with her husband, she found herself on her hands and knees in a Mennonite cemetery in Rockingham County, Virginia, researching her grandmother's family. It was the best way to find new relatives, she says. Plus it was a good excuse to visit the state.

"I spent over three hours there. I discovered that the cemetery was filled with my ancestors," she recalls. "It was very emotional. I knew some names, but to actually be there was quite moving."

It's unlikely you'll make such an emotional connection online, says Howells. But the Internet can still get you started. As a key research tool for any genealogist, she recommends the Internet's newsgroups and mailing lists. Many are devoted to specific historical events or family lines. Mailing lists and newsgroups generally archive messages, enabling users to search them with keywords. The oldest and most popular list, ROOTS-L, allows subscribers to post queries for assistance and search archived messages for any text mentioned in any message. The lists can also help you learn about genealogical research methods and contact others who are researching your family line.

Suffice it to say, all this work can wear down even the most dogged detective. If you find yourself stumped or decide you've had enough, a professional genealogist may be worth hiring. Professionals tend to specialize. Some research medical and family health histories. Others offer expertise in legal or military records, geographic areas, ethnic groups or time periods. They can help you evaluate evidence from different sources, analyze your lineage and plan research strategies.

Roger Joslyn, a certified genealogist in New Windsor, New York, says clients hire him when they feel overwhelmed by the research. "A lot of clients have unusual requests," says Joslyn. "One client knew a revolver belonged to a great-uncle and he wanted me to find the story behind it. I had a name and an approximate time period around the 1700s and was able to trace the gun to the Isle of Shoals off the New Hampshire coast."

Professionals can also help you gather materials for membership in one of the nation's more than 100 hereditary societies. Such groups range from the esoteric (like the Flagon and Trencher's, which admits only descendants of Colonial tavern keepers) to more accessible organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution. The American Society of Genealogists' Timothy Beard has helped hundreds gain entrance to some of the nation's strictest societies. As the so-called gatekeeper and president for the Order of the Crown of Charlemagne in the United States of America, a group that can trace back its members' lineage to the eighth-century Frankish emperor Charlemagne, he's authenticated several hundred family histories for aspiring members.

"Many people have a name that wouldn't sound like royalty but really is," he says. "It may sound Italian or Jewish or French. Then you discover that through that person's grandmother he goes back to the Colonial period and then to kings or queens."

Beard has traced his own lineage to Clovis, the fifth-century king of Cologne. He's become so adept at chronicling family trees (he's been doing it since he was four, he says) that a glance is sometimes all it takes for him to validate certain lines. "There are certain gateway ancestors when you get back into the seventeenth century," he explains. "I can look at these lines immediately and say, yes, that line goes back to Charlemagne or further."

Even if you don't think there's noble peerage in your blood, you may be surprised. "Millions of Americans can trace their lineage to Charlemagne. You just have to prove it," notes Beard. "We're such a melting pot, but a lot of people who came over in the seventeenth century had ancestors that went back that far."

Susanne Behling, for one, is now researching a woman named Anna Gould, her sixth great-grandmother. She suspects Gould was a nurse during the Revolutionary War's Battle of Bennington, in Vermont. She's trying to authenticate her story by searching archives, prowling graveyards and county records, surfing the Web and sending letters to strangers in search of clues. She's even become a member of one of the nation's fastest-growing genealogical groups: The Black Sheep Society, a loose confederation of some 200 people who share stories about their more infamous ancestors.

"She [Gould] wasn't a black sheep," says Behling. "but it might turn up some leads." Behling hopes eventually to collect and recount her ancestors' tales in a book. But it seems unlikely she'll uncover any more shocking secrets. "A few years ago, I found out that my parents were distant cousins going back 10 generations," she says. "That's as strange as it gets."

Daren Fonda is a freelance writer based in New York City.

 

CHARTING YOUR SOURCE


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