Every family asserts and defends fabled tales of famous ancestors. Perhaps it’s the great-great-uncle who somehow created music with Elvis Presley. Or the eighth great-grandmother who aided Betsy Ross in the sewing of the American flag. My family has its own share of folklore regarding a handful of “famous” relatives. Although I was dubious, quarantine summer resulted in an unprecedented amount of downtime. So, I decided to dig deep — I opened an Ancestry.com account and discovered some surprising information.
Britannica defines genealogy as “the study of family origins and history.” The word “genealogy” actually derives from a pair of Greek words, one meaning “race” and the other, “science.” In practice, genealogists diagram their families in an attempt to trace back generations of history.
From an early age, I watched my grandmother digging and rummaging through piles of archaic documents and mottled photographs. However, looking at the towering pile of archives seemed overwhelming. Some family members looked alike and many carried on family names through generations, not to mention the uncertain percentage of erroneous dates and misinformation. This led to questions like, Who is who? Who married who? Was this person born twice? Died twice in two cemeteries?
Despite the hefty price ($39.99 per month of membership fees), the Ancestry software was instrumental in the majority of my genealogical discoveries. Upon opening an account, one creates a family tree with any existing knowledge of family members. Typically, inputting parental and grandparental birth dates and locations unveils some telling hints. “Hints” are signified by little green leaves on the edge of your family tree. Clicking on the leaves reroutes you to a list of documents or files which may correspond to your ancestor’s life. Next, one must manually approve or deny the hints based off of preexisting knowledge and judgment calls.
Although the process is tedious and time-consuming, over time one is able to weave together a thorough web of information. If you are lucky, you may encounter distantly related descendants who are also active on the Ancestry site. It also becomes easier to conduct searches when you can piggy-back off of a common descendant’s tree.
So, what did I discover?
For years, my mother has been telling me that her family was distantly related to the Fitzgerald side of the Fitzgerald-Kennedy dynasty. Of course, I was skeptical. Unfortunately, my search uncovered no conclusive evidence of any relation despite two generations of Irish “Fitzgeralds” arriving in America in the 19th century.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that stretching far, far back in history, my eleventh great-grandfather was an early Plymouth settler, arriving in the first American Puritan settlement in 1632. Ancestry unveiled over 30 documents citing his leadership roles in the early colony. He ended up bearing many successful spawn, including grand-nephew Samuel Huntington, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the one-time President of the Continental Congress.
Sadly, I was unable to locate any genealogical records for my Japanese maternal grandmother. I was hoping to find out more about her pre-World War II life and family. Unfortunately — perhaps as a result of the destruction resulting from Tokyo firebombings — no records from Japan were identified on the Ancestry site.
Likewise, my paternal family lineage presented some roadblocks. The majority of this set of ancestors immigrated to the United States from Germany or France in the mid-19th century. The discoverable documents were riddled with multi-part French names and locations. There were less available hints to investigate, as well as less common descendants utilizing the Ancestry program.
Despite the less formative early genealogical evidence, my paternal grandmother’s prior and ongoing investigations have provided me with an immense amount of information to aid my own search. Using her notes, I was able to track this side of the family up until the late 18th century through censuses, steamship forms, and other documents. I even located some controversial court documents from a family scandal in the 1920s!
With just a laptop and some tidbits of information, I was able to unearth the age-old stories of my ancestors. I theorize that if you investigate far back enough, you are bound to be related to someone influential. Even creating a 14-day free-trial account may spur you to dig deep into your familial past!