random thoughts · Uncategorized

Your Ancestor’s Life Should Be Enough

One of my family history professors said something really cool in class the other day. She said, “Your ancestor’s life should be enough.”

Out of context, this might seem kind of like a weird statement. We had been talking about family stories or traditions and how over the years, stories tend to get embellished. A burned barn turns into a burned schoolhouse and an adopted ancestor suddenly becomes the Indian Princess. We all do it. And one of the reasons she said that family stories become less and less true over the years is because everyone wants to be related to someone famous. Everyone wants a bit of royal blood in their line.

“But,” she said, “your ancestor’s life should be enough.”

If you’ve read this blog before, then you know that sometimes I can get on a diatribe about how important it is to remember that your ancestors were people and not just names on a pedigree chart. And because I feel so strongly about that, this phrase really stuck out to me.

I recently worked on a project for a class last semester about my ancestor Kate Kendall (you’ll hear more about her in later posts). She grew up in Hertfordshire, England in the late 1800s through the late 1900s. (She lived to be over 90, guys! She’s pretty cool.) She never married and was a servant all of her life. She took care of her blind sister after her parents died. She lived through World War II. But I never found anything particularly amazing about her life. But what is so cool is that she was a real person! And I grew to love her and her family as I researched them. They weren’t “special” people, but they are my ancestors and so that made them important to me.

I’m starting to sound preachy again, so I’ll wrap up this blog post. But I just hope that as we go about our research, we can remember our ordinary ancestors among those who have been written in history books.

Gabby out.

(Sorry no picture in this post. I was never able to find a picture of Kate Kendall, so I figured I’d symbolically leave out a picture in this post.)
random thoughts

After a Long Absence, I Have Returned


Hello everyone!

I know it’s been a super long time since I posted on here (it’s been guilting me on the brain), but this semester has been pretty crazy. Any of you who have been to college will probably remember all the lovely late nights.

But the good news is that because I was so busy, I learned a lot! Which leads me to my next disclaimer: I took British Family History this semester, which means my mind is filled to the brim with British information. So a lot of my blog posts in the next bit will be about how to find records in Britain, with maybe some Back to Basics stuff thrown in for good measure as the ideas come to me.

But I have decided to get back into the game. So here we go.

random thoughts

I’m Not Usually This Cheesy About Family History

I have something to admit.

In addition to not having written a blog post in a long time, I haven’t done family history work in a little while. I got out of classes for the summer and BAM laziness. But I found that I was beginning to miss it.  And, as someone who just started doing family history work a few months ago, it was kind of surprising to me. I had thought that family history was just my major and something that I felt like I should do because my mom and brother do it.

But I missed family history.

And it was even more than that. Because I had tried to look for random ancestor’s parents or find their birth date. But it was so disjointed that I couldn’t even begin to get into it and I just found it frustrating. You know what that means? The organization of a research plan actually works! Because the idea of selecting a family that needs more work done and doing a census survey then vital records and military and land and probate records makes the process seem so much less daunting than if I just dive into trying to find someone’s parents without any context or anything.


So I have a new project. And I haven’t been necessarily the best I could be at doing the research more than once a week because, remember that laziness I mentioned earlier? But it’s been fun. I’m working on a family that was born in Prussia or Germany or wherever the heck it was back then. And there is a missing father.

So I looked at the FamilySearch Research Wiki for their locality, I started looking at what records were already listed on her page, and I conducted a census survey and was able to find them in all of them (except 1890 of course). I’m still in the beginning stages but I’m on my way.

Don’t give up! Use your research processes–they work. Keep on looking for those missing fathers, brothers, sisters, and daughters. You got this.

random thoughts

Your Ancestors are People Too

One of the things that I have noticed in family history work is that sometimes people just find names and consider their work done. I have a name and a date. I’m good to go. They are found.

But just think about that for a second. If you were meeting someone, let’s say someone who sat next to you in class, would you look at them and ask, “Hi, what’s your name? Oh, that’s a nice name. Where and when were you born?” and then proceed to act like they no longer existed? No. Because they are a human being who you would probably try to get to know a little bit better. “What are you studying? Do you like cats or dogs better? What’s your favorite color?”

Your ancestors are people too. They lived a long time ago (sometimes a really long time ago), but they still lived. It’s interesting for me to think that my great-great-great-great grandma probably wished that she could afford more clothes or was jealous of someone else’s hair or felt lonely sometimes. Because she was a real human being with real human feelings. Emotions don’t change over time. Circumstances do. Clothing styles do.

I took a class about writing family history this semester and one of the assignments we had to do was a family history memoir. The basic idea behind the assignment was that we would research a member of our family who had already died and look for and write about a connection that we found with that ancestor. I wrote about my great-great-great grandmother who was the daughter of Mormon pioneers who settled in southern Utah. In times of struggle in her life, she would often turn to music, even making up songs to fit her current mood. This struck me deeply because I have always connected with music. And so I wrote about it. About how music can touch people’s lives and help them to get back up again when they have been knocked down by life.

A photo of Mary Ellen, from FamilySearch

If I hadn’t dug deeper into this ancestor’s past, I would not have found that way to see Mary Ellen (that’s her name) as a real human being. She would have just been another name among billions.

Do you want to be remembered as just a name? Or do you want to be flesh and blood?

It can be a hard thing to do, to find out stuff about your ancestors. A lot of records just tell you dates and places. But they also tell you relationships. Probate records can detail every possession that they had when they died. If you’re lucky, there’s a journal you can read. Ask a family member what they know about your ancestors. That’s what I do. My mom has been researching far longer than me so she knows stories that I haven’t found yet. It’s an amazing feeling and process in finding who your ancestors are.

random thoughts

Family History is a Mindset

photo from familysearch.org

Today’s post isn’t really about tips or tricks. It’s just something I’ve kind of been thinking about recently especially since I have a history essay due tomorrow and I am frantically trying to write it.

In many history classes that we take throughout middle and high school and college, it is all about the main parties of people and how they are affected. I felt like this was especially true in my college history classes because they were so fast-paced that it was like there was no time to focus on the individual. But that is really what I’m interested in. I understand that the groups are the people who tend to influence history, but I also want to know about the woman who had to go back to being in the home after feeling a sense of importance in the work force during World War I or II. I want to know about the husband and father who worked so desperately to earn money for his family not to starve during the Great Depression or on a farm in the Dust Bowl.

That’s what family history is. It’s a focus and a mindset on the individual. Yes, we look at whole families and use relationships to find out information about a person, but we are looking so much closer than many historians do unless they are writing a biography on someone. But even then, it’s usually a major figure. In family history, we get to focus on the people who certainly made an influence in the world, but mostly only to a select group of family and friends.

I just think it’s so cool that there is an avenue to explore the real people and what they did in their lives. Even if all you can find out about them is that they were born in Shoreditch, England in 1854. That still makes them a real person. And because of history, we can know what was happening around them as they grew up.

So next time you’re studying the Civil War, I hope you remember your ancestor who fought for the Confederacy against his uncle. Or if you’re learning about the Irish Potato Famine, remember your however-many-greats grandmother who had to watch her children go hungry and feel helpless. Because they are people and they matter. And what happened to them should never be silenced, but remembered and written about and turned into stories at the dinner table.

random thoughts

You are a Part of Your Family History

photo from Meagan (flickr)

The first year I went to RootsTech, there was a speaker who encouraged us to start our family trees with ourselves. (They were specifically talking about creating a tree on Ancestry, but it applies across the board of tree makers.) And that really struck me. Because I feel like sometimes family history seems like it always takes place in the 1800s or such old dates. But really, we are an active part of our family history and right now, that family history starts with us. (Sometimes I think about the people who will be doing my family history someday and hope that I haven’t made it too hard on them…)

As part of my studies in Family History, I am taking a class called Composing Personal History. Basically, we are writing stuff about our ancestors and ourselves. I have written about traditions in my family, about a story in my life, and right now we are writing memoirs that connect us to an ancestor. It’s really cool because I am writing about a woman who I never knew, but because both of us turned to music in our trials, I feel like we are connected over the years.

Another part of that class is journal writing, which we are required to do every day. And which I will now shamelessly plug. 🙂 I used to be really good at writing in my journal, but as life went on, I began to ignore the journal on my desk. My freshman year, I hardly wrote in my journal at all. And now I am incredibly sad because I had a lot of amazing memories that year with a lot of new friends and I feel like I have lost them on a certain level because I don’t remember everything. Since I started writing in my journal again, not only am I able to catalog the fun and amazing things that are happening in my life, but it is also an amazing sound board for my own thoughts.

I have been struggling with finding out about the details of the lives of the family I am researching right now for my family history class and I wish I could get my hands on a journal. Help your future ancestors and preserve all of your journals so when they want to know what you did in college, they can use your journals to understand more of you.

You can also start gathering family stories. FamilySearch is really pushing for that kind of thing on their memories page. You are able to upload life stories in “Documents,” type out your own stories or memories in “Stories,” and listen to the voice of your relatives by uploading audio files. A great way to learn stories that you can share and save is through interviewing living ancestors. I recently interviewed my grandma and it may seem kind of weird at first, but in the end it is fantastic! I learned so many things about her that I didn’t know about at all. And a lot of times, relatives will have stories about ancestors. My mom knows a lot about the family that I am researching for my class and it’s amazing that I can just talk to her and learn so much about them.

I just feel like even if you don’t do any of these things that I’ve mentioned in this post, remember that you are a part of your family history. And hopefully that will make you feel connected to the people you are researching.

random thoughts

The History of Family History is Pretty Interesting

photo from b r e n t (flickr)

Okay, I don’t know if you know this, but there was a time in America that family history was considered a terrible, almost treasonous act.

You see, back in England, people did genealogy so they could prove that they were a part of the royal family. But after the American Revolution, people were trying to keep themselves as far away from England as possible. So if someone was doing genealogy then it seemed to everyone else that they were loyalists to the crown, trying to cozy up to England. If you wanted to do genealogy, it had to be sneaky. This lead to a greater tendency for people to be valued or known for their accomplishments rather than their ancestors.

This changed in the early 1800s. People started looking back at their ancestors. In 1812, the American Antiquarian Society was formed and in 1820, Daniel Webster gave an oration that sparked interest in genealogy. But as America transitioned toward the Civil War, genealogy became a tool for North and South to compete and for people to identify race and the higher race. Because of these two things, genealogy helped shift people’s identities as collective rather than individual.

Fraudulent genealogy was very large during this time (but, trust me, it had gone on before and still happens). But in this case, people started giving people money to find their ancestors. But when they couldn’t find anything they would either make up lines and ways that people were related to royalty, or make up fraudulent crests. So double check those royal lines you have. 😉

Then things started getting crazy as family history was professionalized, democratized, and commercialized.

Professionalization means that family history started to follow scientific inquiry. In 1912, Sousa Young Gates was the first to start publishing lessons, manuals, and how-tos about genealogy. And about this same time came a rise in documentation and a questioning of traditions. The Genealogical Society of Utah was formed, which was followed by the American Society of Genealogists. In 1964, the first accreditation programs were available, which were followed by Master’s programs at many universities and Bachelor’s program at Brigham Young University in Provo.

Democratization means that more people are participating in genealogy and it is more egalitarian. As mentioned before, in the 1800s, genealogy was a lot about race and exclusion. But with the Civil rights movement (which brought a sense of identity and belonging) and a decree in 1938 that eugenics were bad, that was slowly changing. One of the largest influences on the democratization of family history was the show “Roots” that appeared in 1977. New developments include DNA and FamilySearch.

Technology has changed the game in genealogy because now companies like Ancestry and Find My Past are offering genealogy tools and records for a price. They are able to gain on the genealogy craze that has swept our age. There are reality TV shows about family history like “Who Do You Think You Are” and “Relative Race.” Every year, RootsTech tries to convince people (especially young people like me) that genealogy is an up-to-date activity that relies heavily on the technology that we use so much these days.

Now all that’s left is to see what happens next in family history.

Whew! That was quite the history lesson. We covered this in multiple days in my class and you just got it in five minutes. If, however, this was not enough for you and you want to read more about the history of family history, I recommend Family Trees: a History of Genealogy in America by Francois Weil.

Image result for family trees a history of genealogy in america
Photo found on Goodreads