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Why Do Genealogy?

The reason I got involved in family history research was the standard reason. I wanted to know more about not just the forebears I personally knew, i.e. my parents and grandparents, but those who had lived in earlier times, before I was born. I was particularly curious to learn more about my maternal grandfather’s maternal grandfather, Nathaniel Martin. I am fortunate that I had the opportunity to truly get to know my own grandfather, whom we young ’uns called Pop. I thought highly of him. He spoke in similarly glowing terms about Grandpa Nate. After Pop went to his grave (at age 104, but still too soon) and could no longer pass along more stories about his grandfather, it didn’t sit right with me that — despite all the occasions when I was witness to and listener of Pop’s excellent reminiscences — I had ended up with barely more than a basic understanding of my great great grandfather and the life he had led.

Once I started digging, I was gratified to be able to assemble quite a nice amount of material about Nathaniel, a mix of published biographical profiles, letters, legal papers, and even a smattering of correspondence composed by the man himself. It was enough that I was able to create the 75-paragraph biography of him that you can read if you click on his name in the paragraph above.

I had good luck, but in fact it’s not that unheard-of to be able to “have enough to work with” when the forebears under investigation are of recent vintage, and lived in the era when literacy was the rule, record-keeping bureaucratic institutions were in place, and people had enough leisure time to do more than plow the fields and keep corn in the cribs. I had enough to work with to write not that long piece about Nathaniel but nearly three hundred other biographies of similar range and depth about my direct ancestors back to and including that level of the family tree, the great great grandparents. It didn’t take magic to be able to accomplish that. It happened because I could find source material.

More than once, I have weighed the prospect of composing individual biographies of equivalent comprehensiveness about members of the generations even further back. I have not done so. It’s not that I lack the motivation. I just know it would be impossible to do them justice to the degree I’ve done with the existing profiles. I have had to be content with catch-all essays summarizing those earlier generations on a wholesale sort of basis. It’s because of something I sometimes call The Great Murk.

I wanted to know more, for example, about my great great great grandmother Lois. Pop’s father’s father’s mother. Alas, I can’t even tell you what her maiden name was. I don’t know if she had a skill or profession other than homemaking and child-rearing. All I know of her are the fundamental statistical facts noted in a tiny number of records: Her first name. Her approximate year of birth. Her approximate year of death. The names of her husbands and the approximate years of the weddings. The names of her children — or at least the names of the eight that lived long enough to be mentioned in any sort of record. About all I have beyond that is a list of places I know she resided at various points in her adult life. None of that gives me an understanding of her attitudes, her style of decision-making, specifics of how she might have utilized her talents or intelligence, or what her favorite things might have been.

But I do have one thing: a photograph. It is a tintype from the mid-1860s showing Lois when she was in her mid-eighties. It shows me no real clue of what she looked like when she was a young lady. But it’s something. It conjures a presence.

You might think I’m here composing this blog entry to speak of how discouraging it is to be confronted by that absence of source material. It’s true that the Great Murk can feel like a blight upon the spirit. But it doesn’t have to be. The clouded perspective may be a reality, but it can be a context from which highlights emerge. Those particulars that have managed NOT to be consumed by the shadows loom larger, and gain an importance that supplies a measure of grace.

Here is what I know about my 4th-great grandmother Catharine Weitzel: She was a healer. Her grandson Esau Johnson included in his memoir an anecdote of a time when the wife of one of Catharine’s nephews was afflicted with some sort of dire condition, and no doctor was available there along the Illinois frontier to assist, it was Catharine who was summoned to help, because the whole clan understood the depth of her knowledge and experience. Esau was sent to fetch her, and though she was then seventy years old, she rode a hard twenty-five miles in the dark to get to the log cabin of the afflicted relative. And she successfully dealt with the crisis. (One of my modern-day distant cousins, a surgeon who is also descended from Catharine, believes the incident may have involved an incarcerated hernia, a problem that might well have led to sepsis and death if not corrected in a timely manner.)

I know no more than that about Catharine aside from her name and the standard statistical information. (And even then, I don’t have precise dates for either her birth or her death.)

I know this about my 4th great-grandfather John Starr (Catharine’s husband): He liked coffee. In 1837, when he was elderly, he declined to be part of a large wagon-train of family members who were moving from the relatively-civilized haunts of Vermilion County in eastern Illinois to go to the newly-available lands in the extreme northwest of Illinois because he was concerned the lack of trading posts and general stores in the “new country” as he put it, would result in interruptions in his supply of coffee beans, and he simply could not do without his morning cuppa.

John Starr is otherwise another of those ancestors I know only by name and basic stats, though one of those stats is an occupation — tailor.

I’ve had people tell me about ancestors who were part of certain well-known events, such as wars. I have some of that in my background, too, but it’s not my focus. I want to know the granular details about how my people lived their daily lives. I care about them as people, not as figures who found themselves embroiled in unusual, large-scale events historians might highlight. The little things matter. The little things make it real. So sometimes it is enough just have a photo, or have a description of a medical emergency handled a certain way, or know that one of my ancestors loved coffee as much as I do.



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