Chapter Excerpt

1

Ask Yourself Why You’re Doing This; or, Genealogy for Beginners

Ask yourself why you’re doing this.”

Pat Roberts, a woman with a stylish haircut, some serious jewelry, and the no-nonsense voice of a high school guidance counselor, stared out at the group of strangers who’d shown up for the introduction-to-genealogy seminar that morning at the Boulder Public Library. I suddenly realized what was coming: just like that guidance counselor, this enigmatic gatekeeper was about to tell us whether our expectations were realistic or just plain ridiculous.

“Ask yourself why you’re doing this,” she repeated, this time with a rhetorical spin. “If I put that question to each of you, I’d get twenty different answers. So ask yourself: What do you hope to find?”

Other people’s history

In my case, it was a circus tent and a dentist. And a cattle farm in Mississippi and, of course, Windswept. I’d come to the Boulder Public Library looking for the truth, if it existed, behind both the tall tales told by my family as well as the silences. I didn’t suspect scandal, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find some. This seemed realistic; at least, it didn’t seem totally absurd. I was also looking for one other thing: a strategy.

I was looking for Jacksons—my Jacksons, among an ocean of people who shared my name but not my DNA. Jackson is the twentieth most popular surname in the United States; in the year 2000, 666,125 Americans were named Jackson. We are legion—but whom did I mean by “we”?1

My father, Jon Anthony Jackson, is one of eight children spread out over seven states. They like each other, yet they rarely see each other. As a family, we neither send nor receive regular Christmas letters. Frankly, most of us probably feel virtuous if we can remember all the cousins’ names. Now that my grandfather Jabe and grandmother Grace Jackson are dead, there is no central “home” to return to—not that many of their children visited much, anyway. Whether that is normal, I don’t know, but it sure didn’t make for a strong sense of heritage. I’d spent seven years getting a Ph.D. in history … other people’s history. It had never occurred to me to look into my own.

Recently, this lack of family narrative began to bother me. The furthest back I could trace my ancestors was three generations: my great-grandparents. That barely got me into the nineteenth century, and I started to feel a little, well, irresponsible about it. I’d spent a lot of time in graduate school tracing the history of African-Americans, people who lamented their history of enslavement not only for its obvious privations, but also because of the way slavery erased their family connections, as parents, children, siblings were separated and sold, names changed, and records lost. Something similar had happened on my mother’s side of the family, Russian Jews who fled persecution to come to the United States in the brief window of time when such a migration was possible.

So what of the Jacksons? I knew they’d arrived in this country before my maternal ancestors, but how much earlier? I had no idea, and no one was discussing it at the Jackson family reunion, because there was no reunion. Ever. Oscar Wilde wrote that “to lose one parent … may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” So what if you’ve misplaced your entire family tree?2

Life offers some reliable milestones guaranteed to thrust family in our faces. Weddings, for example. My husband, Ben, has two uncles, one aunt, and four cousins. Me, I have six (surviving) aunts and uncles just on the Jackson side alone, with who knows how many cousins (and, sadly, I didn’t). For a couple trying to plan a small wedding, you’d think the Bride’s Side of the aisle would be the problem here, but no. No, because it barely occurred to me to invite any of my Jackson relatives: I hardly knew most of them. The wedding planner in me was relieved, but the Jackson in me felt, for the first time, a little sad about the etiolated state of the Jackson family horticulture.

Another major milestone was the birth of my son—or rather, the forty weeks leading up to it. It was a magical time filled with excitement … and paranoia, nausea, and more questions about my family health history than I’d ever imagined possible. Causes of death, incidents of stroke, commitments to sanitariums? I needed the information fast. The eventual birth of my healthy son did, of course, provoke all the expected but nevertheless poignant emotions related to the Circle of Life and the perpetuation of the family line, but honestly? It was the endless medical interrogations that really got me thinking about where this baby came from.

Weddings and births are happy reminders of the ways we are all connected to the billions of human beings who walked the planet before we got here (over 100 billion at last count). Funerals, of course, prompt similar thoughts, and also force us to think about our own mortality. None of my grandparents were at my wedding; they had all passed away by then—but I had only attended one of their funerals. I was never very close with any of them, but with the birth of my son, I found myself missing my grandparents and trying to remember how they looked, how they sounded, and the stories they’d told.

Jabe Cook Jackson was the most riveting storyteller among them. Born in Alabama, he was one of those southerners who turned every utterance into a memorable bon mot. Some family stories are told more often than others; among Jabe’s eight children, each one might have a different version of a canonical yarn, and each version would be equally funny and vivid. Sheer numbers contributed to a Jackson family narrative pieced together according to the rules of the old game of Telephone; stories are repeated and commented upon, then subtly changed and passed not only from father to son, but also from sister to brother.

Growing up—and even now that I am, ahem, grown up—every once in a while a relative would drop a Family Bomb. A Family Bomb was one of those Jackson family stories so bizarre and unexpected that it threw everything into a new light. They usually appear in a conversation apropos of nothing in particular. One involved a mysterious black “brother” of my grandfather—a Family Bomb first dropped when I was about twenty-two. My dad just happened to mention it during an otherwise unremarkable conversation: Oh, and another thing: your white, southern grandfather grew up in Jim Crow Alabama with a black orphan boy around his own age whom he considered a brother. Never knew what happened to him. Right. Or: Actually, when we first moved to Kingsley, the whole family lived in a circus tent. Sure. And: You’ve never met those cousins? They’re the ones who own a cattle ranch, and when they got tired of asking the bank for money, they started their own. Their own what? Their own bank. Oh.

So there was the black brother question, the circus tent issue, and the First Bank of Jackson mystery. There were others, too. Why, at Grandpa Jackson’s funeral, did my righteous, devout Christian aunt Mary insist to the undertaker that my Baptist-minister grandfather—her father—was Jewish? Why did my grandparents name their home in Kingsley, Michigan, Windswept? It sounded like a southern plantation—was it an homage to a lost antebellum homestead? I didn’t know. With all these questions in mind, I began to seek answers.

I hoped my background in American history would help. I had a lot of experience with old records and dusty documents, but I had never applied it to my own family. I’d gone to the introduction-to-genealogy course that morning in an attempt to bring all my Jackson relatives, dead and alive, together—if only on paper. I wanted to gather them up and make sense of them if I could.

The name gatherers

Within one second of walking into the meeting room, I’d made my first major discovery: I am not alone. It’s not that I found my long-lost Jackson cousin sitting there. It was that I found so many other people, strangers to me, each on their own identical quest.

I am not alone is a sentiment that resonates on many levels when beginning a journey of family history. In this case the numbers signified something surprising: forty-seven people had taken time off work or arranged a babysitter in order to come to the Boulder Public Library on a Tuesday morning, all to get help with their family trees. I was definitely not alone.

It didn’t surprise Pat Roberts, of course. As the secretary of the Boulder Genealogical Society and its director of education, Pat had witnessed what the rise of the Internet had wrought: a whole new generation of genealogy enthusiasts eager to Google their family trees. Once the province of orphans and aspiring Daughters of the American Revolution, the world of genealogical hobbyists is now exploding in popularity, thanks in part to the immense new repositories of data on the World Wide Web. That’s why Pat was here: to guide all of us in this journey—a journey that more and more people were making every day.

How many people are actually doing genealogy? According to the official Directory of Genealogical and Historical Societies, Libraries, and Publications in the United States and Canada, there are twenty-two thousand genealogical and historical societies; twelve thousand genealogical and historical periodicals; and ten thousand public and private genealogical and historical libraries, archives, and collections. Looking through the directory, I found an average of thirty to fifty genealogical societies per state, divided by county, city, and sometimes by special interests such as ethnic affiliation. That’s a lot of genealogical societies—heck, that’s a lot of societies, period. So much for bowling alone.

Not everyone interested in genealogy joins a society, though. Most genealogy hobbyists do their stuff on the Web, and I found even more numbers there. As with most genealogical quests, you can’t go wrong by starting with the Church of Latter-Day Saints (aka the Mormons). The LDS Church began compiling family history data for religious reasons a century ago and these days their archives contain information on over one billion people. The church’s Family History Library has always been open to the public, but until recently that required traveling to Salt Lake City. In 1999—hallelujah!—the church launched www.FamilySearch.org, the Web version of the Family History Library archive. Since then, over 150 million people have visited the FamilySearch Web site, with one million registered users and more than fifty thousand people accessing the site every day. And that’s just one archive. In the past few years dozens of new free and fee-based Web sites have popped up to offer different types of searches, whether for census information, birth and death certificates, or—my personal favorite—tours of “virtual cemeteries,” where one can peer at all those faded headstones without scuffing a slipper. It’s pretty clear: one reason more people are interested in genealogy is that it’s gotten so much easier to do.

The people gathered in the Boulder library that morning probably started their searches online. If their explorations were anything like mine, they’d experienced an initial thrill (Hey! Someone named Desmond Jackson is also looking for his ancestors!) followed by a slow dissipation of excitement (Okay, there are, um, a lot of people named Jackson looking for their ancestors … and somehow we’re all looking for different people). I now knew what a helium birthday balloon felt like as it shriveled and drifted to the floor a few days after the party. It felt like it was time to get help.

Sometimes I think nothing in this world would ever get done without the no-nonsense grit and guidance of women over forty. Pat Roberts knew what we needed and she was willing to help. She smelled our desperation as we filed into the conference room, lunging for her information packets. We needed guidelines. We needed parameters. We needed to focus, people. Pat would provide a Plan of Action.

We’d already asked ourselves why we were doing this. But Pat was not going to make us state our motivations aloud. “Some people want to find a celebrity ancestor,” she said. “In my case, my husband challenged me to find out if his family tradition was true—were they descended from a signer of the Declaration of Independence?” Pat had a friend named Jane who was already experienced in genealogical searches, and she also encouraged Pat to dig in. “I was intrigued,” Pat said. “I came down here to the Boulder library and ordered microfilm from the National Archives. I turned my children loose in the children’s section, and they played while I looked at the microfilm.”

I groaned. Seven years of graduate school had left me a battle-scarred veteran of the University of California’s army of ancient microfilm readers, massed in a herd in the half-height stacks of a dusty, windowless no-man’s-land somewhere beyond the periodical room. I thought my labor in the archival mine shafts had ended when I submitted my dissertation: Did my interest in genealogy mean I’d have to descend again?

“This was 1973,” Pat continued. “The copies came out on thermo paper—you can’t even read it anymore. Microfilm . . .” She shook her head. I did, too. “You cranked it … it’s ugly . . .” Yes it is. I could almost see my as-yet-unpopulated family tree begin to wither, leafless.

“But what we did back then was a totally different type of genealogy,” Pat said.

I perked up and I’m pretty sure several others in the room, perhaps with their own hellish microfilm memories, did, too. Pat explained that while it was still necessary to use microfilm from time to time, the Internet had revolutionized the practice of genealogical research. Not only were many archival resources online, but “now, with the Internet, we’re communicating with people we never would have found before … ever, ever, ever.” It was now possible to find distant relatives online—relatives who might already have done a lot of your family research for you. Now we were getting somewhere.

“We’re getting our hands on stuff we never would get before,” Pat said. “Back then, genealogists were just name gatherers. We collected as many names, births, marriages, and deaths as we could. If it looked reasonable, we jumped on it. But we were not doing good genealogy.” What she meant—and this was something I would hear a lot as I learned more about the changes in genealogy—was that very few people made much of an effort to actually verify the information they found in family Bibles and in the stories of Aunt Ida. If it was a name or date: it was good to go. Over the past few decades, even before the Internet arrived on the scene, genealogists have gotten more professional in their research. Proper citation is a big deal these days, as is good record keeping. There is more information to be had, which means there is a lot more information to organize. “I can do in two weeks what it would take me two years to do back then,” Pat said, referring to her early days of research in the 1970s. My friend Matthew calls these TGFI moments: Thank God For the Internet. I hoped to have a lot of them.

Six degrees of Juan Baca

I’d begun my genealogical research on the Internet, first by looking for information about my family, but since I didn’t know much about them or where to look, I started looking at other people’s family trees and then at the genealogists themselves.

And I started to think about death.

You might say death is what genealogy is all about. One of the less publicized benefits of genealogical research is its role in providing a gentle acquaintance with the idea of death … specifically, one’s own. As I read through the family stories of online genealogists, I was struck by their casual, even cheerful way of noting the deaths of family members in the course of relating some larger story about their research. They’re not morbid, nor are they flippant; they’re simply more at ease with discussions of death because it’s something they consider every day. It’s even more profound than that, though, because I think their deep understanding of their roots is a tangible source of comfort in the face of death; to them, death is both unavoidable and familiar. And, of course, their own work offers the promise that someday one of their own ancestors will, in turn, remember them. When it comes to postlife expectations—divine resurrection aside—what more can one hope for?

Genealogy hobbyists are not just a bunch of well-adjusted funeral attendees, though; they’re also nerds. I love nerds. My definition of a nerd is someone who is extremely interested in … something. Anything. Whether experts on sports scores, Star Wars, or Michael Kors, they’re all nerds to me. These are people of passion, and the object of their fascination is less important than their zeal to know everything about it. With genealogy, there is a lot of “it” to know, from understanding the limits of mitochondrial DNA to locating the long-lost manifest of an ancient schooner, these people demonstrate that learn is the most active verb. My name is Buzzy Jackson and I, too, am a nerd.

Skeptics often distrust the motivations of genealogists. Isn’t this obsession with ancestry just … self-obsession? Isn’t it just another narcissistic pastime, sort of a “six degrees of separation” game in which one’s own name takes the hallowed central spot usually reserved for Kevin Bacon? (Genealogy Nerd Fact #37: In New Mexico, people use the name “Juan Baca” instead of Kevin Bacon. No one really knows why.) Common sense and the math of genealogy say no. Once one reaches back past, say, one’s grandparents’ generation, there are just too many ancestors for anyone to feel a seriously intimate connection. Consider the generation before your grandfather—there are sixteen people involved there. And the rules of exponents reveal that this number just keeps getting bigger and bigger—yes, exponentially—with each generation, eventually resulting in thousands, then millions of ancestors. When you go way back, say, five thousand to fifteen thousand years ago, you hit what genetic researchers call the “identical ancestors point,” which basically means this: if you look back far enough, we’re all cousins. If nothing else, this provides some long-sought scientific backup for the conceptual framework of The Patty Duke Show.

If this is narcissism, then it’s a form of self-love that extends to the whole human race. Genealogy math is full of strange facts. A recent New York Times article provoked hundreds of angry reader responses when the author asserted that less than 50 percent of any one person’s ancestors are men. Reader, he proved it. (His calculations looked pretty convincing to me; but I should confess that I was an English major.) Then there’s evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s explanation of how our “250-greats grandparent” is not only a grandparent shared by you and me, but also the grandparent of all living chimpanzees. Even for hard-core Darwinians, this can be a little hard to digest.3 Personally, I was thrilled. Nerd alert.

Being nerds, genealogists love freaky details. Want to excite a genealogist? Just mention the 1890 Census … then hang on. The 1890 Census is the Rosebud of American genealogy. As the first machine-tabulated census, it reported the United States’ total population (exactly 62,622,250) in six short weeks, unlike the 1880 Census, which wasn’t completed until two years before the next census took place. Administered at a crucial time in America’s immigration history, the 1890 Census provided a quantifiable measure of a new, multiethnic population. The data gathered included information on country of origin, race, ability to read and write English, and much more (including whether anyone in the house was officially “idiotic.” Now that’s information you can use).

Stored in the basement of the U.S. Department of Commerce Building in Washington, D.C., this trove of (future) genealogical information caught fire one night in 1921 and a quarter of the 1890 Census data was incinerated, with another 50 percent damaged by smoke and water. The accident became a key factor in the formation of the National Archives, a presumably safer home for America’s in-box. But even that couldn’t save the apparently doomed 1890 Census. Sometime in 1934 or 1935, all those punch cards disappeared—forever—when the librarian of Congress (who shall remain unnamed here) tacitly authorized their destruction along with a lot of other “scrap” paper.

Many, probably most nations have their own sad story of archival loss. Ireland lost nearly its entire collection of public archives, including all its census information, when the public records building in the Four Courts blew up during the Battle of Dublin in 1922. Only the few materials that had been left in the reading room were saved. Stories like these make genealogists (and historians, I must add) physically ill. So much information, lost forever; it’s the Library of Alexandria all over again.

Genealogists are a dogged and frankly obsessive bunch. Human beings are record keepers. The first human records were stories, oral histories of tribal origins told to one another around the African cooking fire. Then came art and writing. Many of the oldest cave paintings depict what may be family groupings, perhaps the earliest expressions of the family tree. And virtually every ancient religion begins and ends with a story of lineage: So-and-So begat So-and-So, and so on. Historians argue that one of the hallmarks of the modern age was the emergence of bureaucracy.

Wherever you find bureaucracy, you will also find genealogists, because genealogists live for records. They may (and constantly do) scorn the carelessness and poor handwriting of the scribes and clerks who noted names and addresses in decades and centuries past, but they also deeply appreciate the fact that such documents exist. Genealogists will go to nearly any length to find a key record. And genealogists are all around us.

I had no idea.

They walk among us unnoticed; they look just like everyone else. But secretly, internally, they are plotting and planning their next research step: a trip to that remote county courthouse in Iowa; a friendly visit with the widow of the man who used to take roll at the Odd Fellows Lodge; a mental list of microfilm to be requested from the Family History Library. They’re always up to something. One unproven statistic you hear a lot in the genealogy world is the “fact” that genealogy is the second most popular use for the Internet. Guess what the first one is.

Genealogists are everywhere. With their history of immigration, I assumed that Americans’ interest in genealogy was probably unique, but no. It seems that anywhere people have parents you’ll find an interest in genealogy. Take the United Kingdom, for example, where six million viewers tune in every week to watch the celebrity genealogy show, Who Do You Think You Are?

In the United States, the record-shattering TV premiere of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1977 is credited by most genealogists for the huge upsurge in genealogical interest among all Americans, especially among those with African heritage. The African-American theme has been a strong one in American genealogy ever since, with the DNA-aided discovery in the late 1990s of the African-American descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. Roots got an update in the 2006 PBS series African-American Lives, in which historian Henry Louis Gates guided Oprah Winfrey, Chris Rock, and several other prominent African-Americans back to their African ancestors with the help of genealogists and geneticists.

Now I was hooked. African-Americans like Henry Louis Gates found white ancestry where they didn’t expect it. With a name like Jackson, it seemed possible that I might have African-American relatives I’d never met; the offspring of a relationship between one of my southern, slave-owning (or so I assumed) Jackson ancestors and, perhaps, a slave, just as the white descendants of Thomas Jefferson discovered African-American cousins they’d never known existed. I wasn’t harboring conspiracy theories; everything I’d learned about American history supported this possibility. It was certainly worth looking into.

Pat’s plan

It was all this that brought me to the library that morning. As I looked around at my fellow Beginning Genealogists I did feel a certain kinship, despite the reservations I shared with my fellow skeptics. The biggest turnoff for me was the notion of racial or lineal purity: a tacky sort of bloodline-based quest for status that kept registries like Burke’s Peerage, the ultimate Who’s Who of the royal set, in business. As I’d explored it, though, I recognized a different, simpler impulse: the desire to understand oneself, through a better understanding of one’s own family.

“Decide where you’re going,” Pat instructed us, “and then you can figure out how you’ll get there.”

I was looking for Jacksons. Check.

“You may find a family line that speaks to you,” Pat said, “and other ancestors who don’t want to be found. That’s all right; all genealogists hit a brick wall at some point.” We all nodded, confident it would never happen to a single one of us. “For instance, you might end up looking for Johnsons.” She rolled her eyes. “Johnsons are almost as bad as Smiths!” Nineteen people in the room laughed. I did not laugh. If Johnsons were almost as bad as Smiths, Jacksons must be worse. Even a beginner genealogist knows that Smiths are the laughingstocks of Anglo-European genealogy, the dynastic equivalent of a common housefly. Smiths are everywhere and there are too many of them. Apparently Jacksons were nearly as bad—the moths of genealogy, perhaps. Maybe we could be the cute ubiquitous surname family, like ladybugs. It was a stretch, I knew.

“Don’t get discouraged,” Pat said, oblivious to the black cloud of demoralization hovering over my head. “There are ways of getting through those brick walls … though it might take years to do it.” She then began to list the research strategies available to us, we lucky genealogists of the Internet age. She handed out a sheet listing over one hundred Web sites related to genealogy, from state-sponsored archives to Ellis Island passenger lists. TGFI, baby.

While the Internet is a genealogist’s best friend, it cannot do the research for you. As Pat explained, although the Internet had revolutionized access to genealogical information, the basic steps of genealogical research had not changed very much since the era of the rotary phone. She outlined them for us over the next couple of hours, but I provide them here, in their distilled form:

We’ve all read the enigmatic phrase on the shampoo bottle: Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s the same with genealogy. The basic steps—interviews, archival research, expert consultation, travel—will repeat themselves, over and over, for as long as you stay involved. That’s both the beauty and the curse of genealogy: it never ends. On the plus side, your research skills improve every time you go at it, making future work a little more smooth. And for addicted genealogists, there really is no downside.

The daylong course at the library continued, and my disappointment at having a common surname dissipated. We looked at Web sites. We discussed common mistakes. We learned.

In the year that followed, I learned much, much more. That day at the library was the beginning of a journey that would lead me to an abandoned Alabama cemetery and a beach in the Caribbean. I would be politely spurned by one relative and rib-crushingly embraced by another. It was a path that would lead me through four time zones and at least three regional dialects and ultimately reward me with the genealogical equivalent of a million-dollar lottery ticket. It would also force me to think more deeply about the cycles of birth, life, and death than I ever had before. My research would make me mourn the loss of my grandparents and appreciate the health of the family still with me.

What I learned on this journey changed my perspective on some of the biggest life issues any of us contemplate: my relationship to my family and my sense of my own life path. It also changed my life in smaller, concrete ways. I learned things about American history I’d never heard about in graduate school; I tried new foods; I forced myself to study the basic tenets of genetics in order to understand my DNA results; I changed the medications I take on a daily basis as a result of learning new information about my family’s medical history, and much, much more (let us not dwell on the number of extra pounds I gained while “researching” the gastronomic heritage of my southern forebears).

Just as I began this journey I happened to hear an interview with the actress Tilda Swinton, who belongs to one of only three families able to trace its lineage back to the ninth century (they are known as Clan Swinton, in Burke’s Peerage terminology). When asked about what it must be like to belong to such an old family, the beautifully spoken Tilda Swinton sighed, betraying just the tiniest speck of irritation. “Everyone’s from an old family,” she said. “Mine just wrote everything down.”4

There you have it. Every single one of us alive today is by definition a member of an “old family.” We don’t hear about “young families” because … they died out. In genealogy, you’re either old or you’re dead. Whether last year or eight hundred years ago, when you’re gone, you’re gone. It’s the chronicling of a family that links it to history. I wanted to know mine.

So, nerd that I am, I started at the beginning, just as Pat Roberts advised: start with yourself, then work backward. Lather, rinse, repeat.

© 2010 BUZZY JACKSON



Excerpted from Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist by Buzzy Jackson
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.