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things I hate about researching my family tree

One adulteress can spoil the batch
I don't recall where I read it, but I do remember the sinking feeling I felt: the idea that somewhere, among the hundreds of people who copulated to create the branches of a family tree that ends with you, at least some percentage of the women were unfaithful. Some percentage of that percentage were impregnated by lovers, and some generous percentage of that group lied to their spouses, their family and their priests about the identity of the father. The child remained legally, and in the eyes of the church, a descendant of the husband.
This situation occurs more often than you might think. An evolutionary biologist at the University of Manchester estimates that in 10 percent of British births, the mother was sleeping with a man who had "stronger" sperm than her husband. Both impregnated her, but the lover's sperm won out. According to an excellent article published in the New Yorker (26 March 2001), the rate of "false paternity" in the U.S. is estimated to be between two and five percent — "not large, but over ten generations the likelihood that a bloodline suffers from what geneticists refer to as a 'non-paternity event' could approach 50 percent." According to Why is Sex Fun?: The Evolution of Human Sexuality, some genetic testing hints that as many as 30 percent of American, British and Italian babies are secretly illegitimate — in its most recent annual survey (2003) of accredited DNA centers, the American Association of Blood Banks found that 29 percent of 340,798 men tested were not the fathers, as claimed by the mothers. The rule applies even in the animal kingdom, or at least among chimps: A 1997 study that ran DNA paternity tests on baby chimps found that 54 percent had not been fathered by the mother's mate.
Once in a while a guy finds out that his kids may not be his, and he goes ballistic. Consider a story I read in This is True, a newsletter of weird-but-true news: "A man in Kinshasa, Zaire, was upset to learn that three of his four children were not his own, and that his wife of 20 years had been unfaithful to him for most of that time. Worse, the neighbors had known for a long time and laughed at him behind his back. Furious, 'Papa G.' sent the wife and three girls to the kids' father's house to live, but then decided that wasn't enough revenge. So he seduced one of the girls, got her pregnant, and married her to become his ex-wife's son-in-law."
I shared this with Eddie Mitchell of Genealo-zine, and he related the story of a friend whose mother had left his father to live with her longtime lover. The lover turned out to be the biological father of the friend's brother and sister, who were in their early 20s. So you never know who you really are — just the stories people tell. The veracity of a legal or church record is only as good as someone's word. That said, you must now strike this thought from your head, or you will never find the energy to search through census records in bad light on an crippled microfilm reader.

Pitfalls In Genealogical ResearchPeople aren't where they're supposed to be
You trace your family back to a certain area and time. You dig up census records and search a small village for siblings. They aren't there. Church records list several by your ancestor's name born about the same time. Pitfalls in Genealogical Research (the best genealogy book you'll find for under $8) has some great examples of this, such as the tiny colonial town that was home to three unrelated guys with the same name.

Dates don't match
One source has 17 January and another has 19 January. It doesn't matter, but if you're dedicated you have to take the time to make a notation and figure out which is right.

Too many statistics
The emphasis on BMD (birth, marriage, death) isn't what genealogy is about, but sometimes it's all you have. I spend a few hours at a time typing from charts to a computer database and sometimes can't sleep because of the dates swimming in my head.

People don't care about the family history and so ignore you
I have cousins and cousins of cousins who I suspect have troves of antique photos and letters in their attic, waiting to be destroyed in a fire. I write asking if I can beg, borrow or steal a glimpse; if they write back, it's often to say, "I looked but couldn't find them." Well, mister, YOU DIDN'T LOOK HARD ENOUGH.

No one labels old photos
It's so sad to visit antique shops and see dozens of 100-year-old photos for sale because no one ever took a few minutes to pencil names on the back. What's sadder is the shoe box of unidentified photos in your closet. You can't throw them out, because you know they're people who belong somewhere in the tree, but it's doubtful you or anyone else will ever know how.

Con artists everywhere
Pitfalls in Genealogical Research describes the crooks who sell people instant family trees and fake coats of arms. That sort of thing gives genealogy a bad name. Tracing your family's history takes energy and time. I had one guy send me a chart that traced his family back to Adam.

Documenting everything
I hate having to document and footnote every date and place. It's a pain but you're supposed to do it. More statistics.

Listening to other people talk about their families
Genealogists never seem to realize that no one wants to hear about their ancestors. They might want to hear about public records and genealogical detective stories, but only if the library isn't closing in half an hour. If you're going to share stories about your family, make sure they involve crazy aunts or murders or bastard children and leave out the statistics. Also, having an ancestor who came over on the Mayflower is not such a big deal — I have five. The Pilgrims married each other, so you find one, you find a bunch. Having an Ellis Island ancestor, now that's cool.


things I love about researching my family tree

It gives me a sense of the people who formed me
We are the product of people who came before. You figure that your parents molded you in many ways, and that your parents were molded by their parents, etc. So there's a part of each ancestor — good and bad — in our values and personalities and genes (but also see the first gripe in the previous list). Although playwright Edward Albee, when asked about why he had never tried to find his birth parents, responded: "I don't want to go to the trouble. I know who I am. Once I figured out who I was, whatever care or interest I may have had in where I came from vanished completely."

It reminds us that we're all family, more or less
When you discover and meet a long-lost cousin, you realize you could have passed her on the street or flipped him off at a traffic light and not even realized they were family. Scientists studying genomes have calculated that each of the six billion members of the species could trace back his or her lineage back 7000 generations to a founding population of about 60,000 people. They also know that the DNA of any two living people is 99.9 percent identical. As one scientist explains it, "Our similarities outweigh our differences."

The Mormons
Whenever someone attacks the Mormons, I have this urge to defend them. That is, as long as they keep microfilming old records.

The detective work
It can make a person obsessive when he or she has a clue to an ancestor's identity and needs only to find a few hours to check records. My great grandfather, born during the Civil War, was the son of English parents. According to one legal record, they named him Charles Luncolias Rowe. I read in Pitfalls in Genealogical Research that the English sometimes named bastard children Last Name of Actual Father/alias/Last Name of Cheating Mother. Was he actually Lunc alias Rowe? I'm chomping at the bit to figure it out.

The people you write to
I attribute my early interest to genealogy — I began when I was 12 — to teenage angst. Some people I wrote to as a kid were helpful beyond words. One woman even looked up my ancestors for me while she was vacationing overseas. I still exchange cards with some distant cousins, even though we've exhausted all leads. In many ways, genealogy is like doing a fanzine: You never meet most of your correspondents face-to-face but feel you know them.

Colonial Americans
Unlike the Poles, Germans and Russians, they recorded their public records in English. I am grateful.

Old photos that have been labeled
I could study them for hours. It's weird especially to see your ancestors when they were about the same age as you. You try to imagine the events immediately before and after the photo was taken. It's sad, because you want to know these people who formed you, but they are lost. Genealogy never answered the question I was after as a teen: Who am I? Like everyone else, I'm figuring it out on my own. Each generation works from scratch. Family history makes you realize how transitory life is, which helps explain the Mormon instinct to baptize the past. It's a good instinct but probably futile.

Lucy KellamJosiah Dewey

On the left is Lucy Killam Carpenter, born March 1778. She had six sons. Note the flash bulb trip in her right hand. On the right is Josiah Dewey, born in 1786 in Vermont. He was deeply religious, and judgmental even of the photographer.


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