I’ve become completely hooked on the NBC show, Who Do You Think You Are? It’s produced by Lisa Kudrow and chronicles the research and travels of various celebrities as they uncover their family trees. It’s a little on the cheesy side at times, and it’s definitely bringing in some big bucks for official sponsor ancestry.com, but all in all, I think it’s fantastic.
Ever since I can remember I’ve been absolutely obsessed with genealogy. I’ve made a study of it for many years. In true nerd style, I’ve managed to trace back various branches of my own personal family tree as far as they can go. It has taken years, and I’m always uncovering new juicy tidbits that were just waiting, in the dark, to be discovered and brought to light.
I find genealogy fascinating. It isn’t that my various families are any more interesting or fabulous than anyone else’s – believe me, I’ve looked for notoriety, famous ancestors and claims to fame, and there aren’t really any to speak of – it’s just that here, in my lineage, are the secrets to who I am. How I came to be this particular brand of Teri that I am today. I’m a combination of Italian, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, German, Cherokee, Creek and Sioux Indian. In me there are hundreds, nay, thousands of contributors to my bloodline, people who walked all over this world, did all different types of things, were all their own unique people. They all combined over hundreds of years to make me who I am. It thrills me, amazes me, and inspires me.
Sounds pretty cheesy, huh? I can hear it. Like I said, I’m a nerd. I blame my genes.
You can’t imagine how exciting it was when I traced one of my female ancestor’s Irish bloodlines so far back that the surnames became clan names. 1299. That’s the year I got to. Granted, a lot of that work had been done before me, by someone even more diligent and impassioned. But even so, I held my breath the entire time I read that family tree.
It isn’t just me, though. More and more people are becoming interested in tracing their roots. It’s fairly obvious, what with PBS, NBC, and other networks offering programs about the genealogies of famous people, sites like ancestry.com and geni.com becoming more and more popular, and scads of books on the subject selling off the shelves of bookstores. For whatever reason, people want to know where and who they came from. With increasing fervor! I completely relate – if I had the time I’d do nothing but genealogy. I’d spend hours at the computer and in libraries, tracing back my roots, trying variations on names, searching censuses, and meeting with distant relatives. That is how much I love the study of family.
Among the gems of information I’ve discovered about my own family include my several-times-great-grandmother Salina, who was a full blooded Cherokee Indian married into a white southern family. She kept a Native American headdress on her wall as a conversation piece. Then there was Ethelred (what a name, huh?), who was incredibly portly, had a sour look on his face, and discovered gold in them thar hills (he really did). He had a goldmine and rumor has it he struck it rich! My several times great grandfather Wesley ‘Lando’ was a keen fiddle player and a bootlegger who never once drank a drop of his own hooch. On my mother’s side, there’s the great-grandfather named Theodore Roosevelt, and my street urchin great-grandparents who spoke a combination of Italian and Spanish while they worked in the mountains of Colorado as servants to keep food in their mouths as teenagers; then there’s my personal favorite: John and Albritton, father and son, who welcomed a redcoat into their home, got him completely smashed on whiskey, then challenged him to a duel knowing he’d be so drunk he wouldn’t win. They killed him in that duel, and the townspeople hung the corpse from a tree as a lesson to other soldiers not to mess with them – now that is a Revolutionary Story!
Of course, every family has their darkness. Among my ancestors I have slave owners, men who beat their wives, such as my several-times-great-grandfather Jim T., who would line all his children up outside and point a shotgun at them to try and scare them into submission. There are tales of infants dying before their first birthdays, women dying in childbirth, and one of my ancestors fathered ten children with his wife, then disappeared into the civil war and never returned. His widow drew a pension, assuming him dead, but in fact he was in the north, remarried with another eight children. Then there’s the tale of Dollie, my great-great-grandmother, who suffered terribly from post partum depression, formed an addiction to laudanum, and spent the rest of her life in the sanitarium where she died. Sanitarium records show that she was almost released, but the staff at the sanitarium thought she was too good of a kitchen hand to let go. Talk about a tragic story.
I am addicted to it, the search for family. I love reading the tales of people long since gone, and trying to find something of myself and my experiences in them. I can’t imagine having ten children. I can’t imagine being an indentured servant to the Queen of England for passage to America. I can’t imagine living in the hills of Oglethorpe County, Georgia, for five generations. I can’t imagine having siblings with names like Aladdin, Arminta, Sivilia, Missouri, Reddick, Hezekiah, Landrum or Pennsylvania Quaker. And yet, I have ancestors with all those names.
The search for your roots is a rewarding one. And it’s easier than you think. There’s no need to pay astronomical subscription fees to have websites peruse censuses for you or buy book after book to get started. Its as simple as googling names of ancestors you know, joining community boards, and building a family tree to start you off. There are so many free resources out there, and the genealogy community at large is friendly, welcoming and informative. People will go out of their way to give you information to aid you on your quest. We’re all seeking the same end result, after all – to find out who we are.