I remember being mesmerized by the miniseries “Roots” when it aired on U.S. television in 1977. When it ended, interest in finding your roots exploded. At first I wasn’t sure what everyone was hoping to find, but then I experienced one of those coming-of-age moments when you are forced out of your self-centered world long enough to realize that not all families are like yours. My dad has six siblings, my mom had seven. I have three siblings and 32 first cousins. Not only do I have a lot of family, but I always knew where our family came from and had a sense of connection with the past, which I thought was the same for everyone.
A couple of decades later technology, in the form of www.Ancestry.com and other websites, brought another surge of genealogical interest. Suddenly genealogy wasn’t as difficult as it used to be. Public documents, such as census reports and military records, are easily available. Now you don’t have to travel and spend a lot of time and money to research your family.
Although I never had enough interest to extensively research my own family, I watch a couple of television shows about genealogy, “Who Do You Think You Are?” on TLC and “Finding Your Roots” on PBS. I watch not because of the celebrity guests, but because I love the stories. These shows are an easy way to enjoy history and serve as a reminder that history is about people and their stories, while also showing how difficult the process can be. Both shows are interesting in different ways, even though I wish they were more detailed. Of course, you can’t possibly tell all the stories in one hour, and maybe that’s my point.
If you do the math, and I really try hard not to do math, the sheer number of stories in any family are almost endless. We each have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents, thirty-two great-great-great-grandparents, and so on and so on. That number doubles every generation and doesn’t include all of the various types of cousins. Only a few generations back and we’re already into a large number of stories. Even if you don’t have a big family like mine that shares family lore, you still have the same number of direct ancestors. They all existed at some point and they all had a story.
As an example of the complexity of genealogical research, one of my cousins is working on our family tree. She’s a cousin on my mother’s side, so we share two grandparents. She made a choice about which of those lines to follow, choosing the maternal line. But she then has to decide for each successive generation which direction she wants to go, which line she wants to follow. Of course she can study each of the ever increasing number of lines each time. I imagine at the beginning of your research you might need to decide if you’re going to go up the line or go lateral, or both.
I once heard that everybody was related to Charlemagne, the emperor of western Europe who died in 814, so I did a little research. The answer is…yes and no. From what I can tell, it depends on if you’re looking at it as an historical or a scientific issue. I’m not going to link to a specific article about this topic because there are a number of opinions. If you are interested, it’s worth doing an online search and checking out several articles on your own.
As I was reading, I came across an aspect of study that I had never before considered. I was surprised by the use of science and math used to make particular arguments. The science aspect of it, from what I think I understand, questions the actual definition of relations. If DNA changes so much in thirty generations that the first and thirtieth generations contain none of the same genes, are those individuals still related? As an historian, it was jarring to hear theories that were all about data on a macro level, rather than about individual humans. Some of the comment strings attached to these articles are enlightening, although the science and math got technical enough to make my eyes cross. If you read the comments sections for these articles, which I recommend, as with all internet comment venues, beware the trolls.
What I’ve learned from my research is that I think when you embark on a genealogical journey it’s important to understand what exactly it is that you want out of the results and/or the process. Do you just want the names and dates that represent each relation, or do you want the stories? How far back do you want to go, and why? As for me, I can see the value in knowing the stories of your ancestors a few generations back. Beyond that, I still believe what I felt instinctively all those years ago. I’m not sure I could feel any real connection with one ancestor among hundreds or thousands. One ancestor may have a great story, but it would be a great story even if I weren’t a direct descendant.
What do you think? Have you or someone else in your family researched your family tree? Do you feel more connected? Are you interested in doing the research, but overwhelmed by the process? Do you believe it matters who your ancestors were? Please feel free to comment and discuss.