Are You a Family Historian or a Name Collector?

I have a question. None of my living relatives knows the answer to this question. I have not found the answer to this question in any public records, nor have I been able to find the answer in cemeteries. I have read a few magazine articles and Internet pages about the topic, but none of them have directly answered the question.

The question is… “Why do we study genealogy?”

What makes anyone so curious about his or her family tree? What drives us to dedicate time, effort, and sometimes expenses to go find dead people?

What is it inside of us that makes us spend hours and hours cranking reels of microfilm, then we go home and report to our family members what a great day we had?

I must admit that I have asked that question of many people and have received several answers. Some people report that it is simple curiosity… and I tend to believe that is a part of the answer. Others report that it is part of an intriguing puzzle that they wish to solve.

The theory on the puzzle bothers me. First of all, I am devoted to genealogy, but I could care less about other puzzles. I don’t do the daily crosswords in the newspaper, I don’t put together those picture puzzles, and I do not seem very interested in any other form of puzzles. If genealogy is solely a puzzle, why would I be attracted to it and yet not to other puzzles? That doesn’t make sense to me. In short, I think there is more to genealogy than there is to a crossword puzzle.

The simplest and most direct answer for many people is because it is a religious requirement. Indeed, members of the LDS Church are encouraged to find information about their ancestry for religious purposes. And yet, of all the LDS members that I meet at most genealogy conferences, most met their religious requirements years ago but continue to look further and further back. In fact, many of them become so addicted that they help others do the same.

Yes, I can accept that religion is a major motivator, but I believe there is still more. I constantly meet people, LDS members and non-members alike, who keep searching and searching, further and further back. Why?

I do not have all the answers, but I do have an observation or two. I believe that most all humans have a natural curiosity. We are curious about many things, but for now, I will focus on our curiosity about our origins and ourselves.

It seems to me that we are all curious about who we are. When I say, “who we are,” that includes questions about our origins. Where did I come from? How did I end up being born where I was? What trials and tribulations did my parents go through in order to give birth to me and my siblings and to raise a family? What did their parents go through to do the same for them? And how about their parents?

All of this is an inverted pyramid. It all comes down to me. Each of us is walking around with an invisible inverted pyramid on our heads. Each of us is visible but each of us is also the result of the many people in the invisible inverted pyramid. After all, each of us is the product of our ancestors.

I will point out that there are two different kinds of genealogists. There are name gatherers, and then there are family historians. Let me tell you a story about an acquaintance of mine. This is a true story; I couldn’t possibly make this up.

I have known my friend for years. I’ll call her Linda, although that is not her true name. I knew Linda before she became interested in genealogy and even helped coach her a bit when she first started. This was many years ago, when I was just beginning my family tree searches as well. At that time, I only knew a little bit more about genealogy than she did.

I only see Linda once every few years. Every time that we meet, the conversation quickly turns to genealogy as we bring each other up to speed on our latest triumphs and failures. I always enjoy talking with Linda. She is bright, articulate, and very enthused about genealogy.

The last time I saw Linda, she proudly announced, “I have almost finished my genealogy!”

I was speechless. I am sure I stood there with my mouth hanging open, blinking my eyes. I don’t recall anyone else every saying they were “finished” with their genealogy searches. How can you be finished? Every time you find one new ancestor, you immediately gain two new puzzles to be solved.

Linda and I had a rather extended conversation. I’ll skip all the details and simply give the bottom line: Some years earlier Linda had purchased a blank pedigree chart that had room to write in eight generations of ancestors, including names, dates and places of birth, marriage, and death.

I suspect you know what a blank pedigree form is. Typically, on the extreme left there is room to write in your own name plus dates and places of your own birth and marriage. (Hopefully, you won’t be filling in data about your own death.)

Just to the right of the space for your entry, there is room for data entry for two more people: your parents. To the right of that, there is space for data about your four grandparents. Moving further to the right, there is room for information about eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents and so forth. In the case of the chart that Linda had obtained, there was room for eight generations, a total of 255 individuals.

At the time I was talking with Linda, she only had two blanks left to be filled on her form, both in the eighth generation. She had found all of her ancestors through seven generations and even all the eighth generation ancestors except for two. She was working diligently to find those last two.

Apparently Linda’s goal was to fill in the eight generations. That was her definition of “finished.” I asked her, “What about the people in the ninth generation or even earlier?” She replied, “Oh, I don’t care about them.”

I was speechless for a moment.

I recovered and then probed a bit further. Linda’s ancestry is French-Canadian, and so is much of my own. Most people with French-Canadian ancestry are related. Any two French-Canadians usually can find common ancestors in their pedigree charts. As I looked over Linda’s pedigree chart, I found several of my own ancestors as well as those of Celine Dion, Madonna, and probably half of the players in the National Hockey League. Since I was familiar with some of these ancestors and their history, I started commenting on their lives.

“Oh, here is the man who was killed in bed by a jealous husband who returned home unexpectedly and found his wife and our ancestor in an indelicate position.”

Linda said, “Really?”

I said, “Here is an ancestor who was captured by the Mohawk Indians and tortured unmercifully.”

Linda said, “How do you know that?”

OK, here is the next bottom line: Linda had expended hundreds, possibly thousands, of hours and a significant amount of expense traveling to various libraries and repositories. She even took a couple of trips to Quebec province. Along the way she collected eight generations of her ancestors’ names, places, and dates, and NOTHING ELSE.

She did not know anything about the lives of these people; their triumphs, their sorrows, the trials and tribulations they endured to raise families that eventually resulted in the births of Linda, me, and many others. She did not know their occupations, the causes of their deaths, or even how many children each had.

I ask you: Is Linda a family historian or a name collector?

If asked, she probably would protest that she is a genealogist. The term “genealogist” isn’t terribly specific, so perhaps that is a true statement. But I will suggest that she is not a family historian. She also does not know how she “fits in” with the rest of the world.

Now for my next question: Which side of the fence do you fall on? Are you merely collecting names, or are you studying family history?

The fact that you are reading this article suggests to me that you are probably a family historian, not a name gatherer.

In fact, I believe that most family historians are motivated by a desire to understand how we are ALL related to each other. We all can see the “big picture” in various history books: the Pilgrims, the Mayflower, Jamestown in Virginia, the Dutch in New York City, the waves of immigration from Europe in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and well into the twentieth centuries, the wars, the politicians, the movement westward opening up new lands, and all that. Pick up any good history book and you can learn about the history of our people.

But that book will not answer one question: How do I fit into all of this?

Studying history is a very useful thing, but it is only half the story. The second half is defining where you and your ancestors were involved. Was your family one of the early colonial settlers? Did your ancestors arrive in the waves of later immigration? If so, which wave? Did your ancestors cover the plains in a covered wagon and fight off Indians? Did that result in your being alive today? What would have happened if only one Indian had better aim?

Even closer to the “real you,” what values did these ancestors bring with them and then pass on to their descendants? Are you a religious person today because of the strong spiritual upbringing that you had? Are you politically conservative or liberal because of your parents’ and grandparents’ ideals and morals that they passed on to you?

Are you devoted to education or music or the arts or to homemaking or to other personal interests because of the morals given by your great-great-great-grandparents to their children, then passed on to their children, and so on and so on?

I believe that much of America’s work ethic, religion, and respect for the rights of others is based upon ideals brought to this country centuries ago, and then passed on over the dinner tables and in front of fireplaces for generations.

I believe this is the answer to the question: many of us who are true family historians study our family heritage in order to not only learn about our ancestors, but also to learn more about ourselves.

What motivates your family search?


I agree with you, the Family Historian is never “finished,” in the 1970s when my maternal Grandmother was living with us during our hard winter months she had a wide correspondence (yes we used to do this by regular mail) it occurred to me I should spend some time with her because I knew she was descended from two generations on her father’s side of 12 siblings each & one line on her Mother’s of 10. It made for interesting family reunions of lots of Aunts, Uncles & cousins so it seemed with her good memory, who could resist. The same was true of her husband, my Grandfather, she knew so many of his family although he predeceased her, he was from a line thru his father one of 12 sons and one sister, we should get as much as possible down on paper who they were. How much more interesting that one sister became in my mind. Then knowing all my life my own Dad was legally adopted at an age & in a day when when there was no secrecy so that he knew why. There was ready made plenty of work to be done on two lines there to learn as much as possible from him while I still could. And it wasn’t just a collection of names, it was how they lived, where they lived some of which I already knew & was curious about. Fill in the blanks with persons who contributed to my background. This became a vocation wrorking for Libraries, finally at one actual History Room for 21 years.. People began coming in for more than history, they wanted to know if their ancestors were from where I worked, and how to learn more about them. Exciting, what better job could I get, now retired, still at it which I love. Diaries even to this day are still being found, the most recent an 1870 year. Possibly more than you wanted but you did ask:)


I think most are a combination of both. They collect history when it is available and names when available. I try to get all information available. I have made some interesting discoveries by collecting names which history would have missed. Collect all or you will miss something.


I enjoy the pure research angle because that’s what I did most of my life (research of the earth’s ionosphere, but research none-the-less) and I enjoyed it. What I like about family genealogy is that it’s the history behind The History. It’s not about people like Rockefellers or Chuchills or Hitlers, but about you-and-me sorts of people living their normal lives. It’s like doing this research and putting together the collective story of my family is honoring their lives, much like a formal biography that goes on the best-seller list. It’s also exciting in and of itself. I am just now sorting out that my great-grandfather Smith was really a Gregory, that his step-father was really his father! This is not something that is part of my family lore, and I don’t know who in the family knew about it, but there it is. No one will need to change a name because of this, but it means I have a whole different set of ancestors! MORE FUN!

Liked by 1 person

I might be considered in both categories because I do research the history of each generation and get as many facts about each one as possible at the time, but also I do a lot of work on extended families. On extended families, I work on their ancestors and descendents as far as I can. So what would be your definition of mine genealogy pursuit?


I suppose I should give these questions more thought, however I am wading into it now. I have been interested in history most of my life and genealogy has become an extension of that interest. Along the way I have learned many things that I had not known or understood. I found that one branch of my family extended all the way back to the Anabaptist groups that were forced out of Europe for their religious beliefs. Another line apparently came from England, were granted land in Virginia and eventually spread across the Midwest and the South. When I was young I was not left with a sitter while my family went off to attend social gatherings, I went with them and met numerous people. I came to learn that many of those people were actually family even though they were distant relatives a fact which I had not understood at the time. And, unlike you Dick, I do enjoy solving puzzles which is also a reason for my continuing pursuit of dead people.
In answer to the question about whether I’m a family historian or a name gatherer, I think I would have to say that I’m both. I have amassed a rather large tree because I tend to be inclusive of all that I uncover in my searches. I give much moretime, attention and effort to more immediate family members, but I don’t eliminate those who I encounter along the way. And unlike your friend, Linda, my family tree will never be finished as I’m having too much meaningful fun!


Your friend Linda poses a really interesting question that I hope she’s answered for herself by becoming a family historian, and asking herself the next set of questions every time she gets new answers. Last week, I went with a busload from my retirement home to the new Nordic Museum in Seattle, much larger than their earlier building. The woman sitting next to me asked me why I was going, which got me started on my interest in genealogy. One of my grandfathers emigrated to the US from Norway as a 12 year old in 1890, and we spent much time with him and my grandmother when I was a child. His lilting accent never went away. We had big family reunions every summer. That whole side of the family was Norwegian, with their favorite recipes and stories. I didn’t know my paternal grandparents, as they died before I was born, but I did know my father’s maternal grandfather very well. He died when I was 8, my brother 6, my sister 3. She remembers him as “that old man with the big nose, who took us to feed the ducks in the park across the street.” But my brother and I remember him, against our father’s wishes, showing us how to use a magnifying glass to start a tiny fire in the driveway. Every summer this side of the family had its reunion too, with wonderful traditional food and stories. My 6 great aunts and their descendants were all great cooks. Great Aunt Veva made the best Parker House rolls in the world until she was 99, and was still beating my parents at Scrabble at 101. My father collected the stories from the Waggoners, and wrote a book that included not just the dates as far back as he could, but the collateral families back to 1730. My grandmother’s brother-in-law did the same thing for the McGrews. My families on both sides were family historians, so that’s what they taught me to be. Sometimes it makes it hard for me to get the dates and places, but I’d rather have the stories!


I agree about “collectors” vs “genealogists”. However, I personally don’t agree with your comments about puzzles. I definitely consider myself a fairly good amateur genealogist. I work on my own family, both statistics and “fleshing them out”; I teach beginner classes, lead a genealogy interest group etc. I also Like to work jigsaws, both on line and on a table. I do crosswords, Sudoku, world puzzles and others. Searching for that missing piece of ancestor’s puzzle of life seems a lot like CSI and other detective stories. So, IMO, a person can be a genealogist and have other interests.


Working on genealogy has sparked a renewed interest in history. I often say that I got good grades in history and then pretty much forgot all I had learned. Now that I am learning my ancestors have lived so much history, I wish I had retained everything I had learned back in High School!


May I please send your writings on this subject to a friend. Like your Linda, this person is DONE! The same number of names and most dates, but that’s all that is wanted.
For myself yes, I do want names and dates and places and am totally disappointed if that is all I ever find – and that certainly happens with some people due to their names and locations in certain times. However for me it is the stories and putting those into the world history. Another interesting aspect of this “madness” is meeting people – family, family friends, archivists, just about anyone. I once got into an English railway station to visit family at the lovely hour of 5 am. The station master invited me into his home and when he found out who I was visiting he remembered the whole family and then had also known my grandfather when this man was a child. It was fascinating and a super experience and I found dozens of places for proof of his memories. It’s not my whole life, but Genealogy, Family History or whatever you want to call it, is certainly one of the best parts!


Ironic that you ask this question, as I have also asked myself many, many times why the HECK I care so much about finding these people in my tree!
WHY do my knees get weak, why does my heart start racing, and why do I want to scream like a giddy school girl every time I hear someone start talking about history or genealogy???!
ONE of my answers I always come up with is much the same as yours: I want to know where I came from, who these people were that lived, and because of them, I am here!
I also have another reason. I want to know their stories, to understand what they went through, and how I can LEARN from their experiences! I’m not LDS but a born again Christian, and I learn and grow in my life by reading of the mistakes as well as the successes of the people in the Bible. I can do the same by learning the stories, the successes AND failures, of my ancestors!
People miss SO MUCH, in my humble opinion, when they think there’s nothing to learn of the people who have passed before us!
I watched the wedding of my 11th cousin once removed, Prince Harry, and I sobbed like a baby; not because of the ‘oh it’s so beautiful/it’s like Cinderella marrying her prince charming’ story, but as I watched them in that SUPER historic church, all I could think of was the THOUSANDS of people over the 1,000 years that had been buried, married, baptized, etc. in THAT. PLACE. What were THEIR lives like? What were they thinking when they were there? Did they pay attention to the ornately decorated walls, ceilings, arches? Did they think about THEIR ancestors?? Did they think about US, those who be their descendants??
And I deeply pondered: with his mother Diana being my 11th cousin exactly, our lives actually PARALLELING one another from our common ancestor, John Cogswell. What would have happened if MY life was hers, and hers was mine???
I often (and I mean OFTEN) cry thinking of the struggles our ancestors went thru, experienced, and it makes me appreciate life all the more. It makes me want to leave a legacy that money can’t buy, but instead a legacy that gives hope and encouragement to the generations that come after me.
Annnnnd now I’ve used up half a box of tissues just writing all of this.
When my mother died, I met my sister at the monument company to pick out her stone. When I arrived, my sister had been just standing there alone in the store front, looking at the stone samples. Silently moving next to her, she finally looked up at me and simply said, “I know the epitaph we can put on her stone.” It was perfect. It was short, but it summed up the legacy our mother left, a legacy I hope I can perhaps somehow live up to even a little, some day. It reads:
“Jean Canby, 1929-1995. Dedicated Wife, Mother, and Prayer Warrior.”
THAT… why I search for ‘them’. The people in my tree, and their stories.
A fellow Family Historian


Great post, Dick. Definitely a family historian, here, and for religious reasons: I’m LDS. I’m not very far back on my lines (after more than 10 years) simply because I can’t bear the thought of any of the children in a family being left out of the family circle. It’s not enough to find my grandmother/great-grandmother/great-great-grandmother/etc., I want to find her siblings and all of her children, too. It makes for slow going but it’s oh-so-satisfying. I also love the challenge of the hunt, the search, the research. Not exactly a puzzle, except sometimes.


James W. Castellan June 6, 2018 at 11:44 pm

I think the vast majority of individuals who begin serious research of their family genealogy and history will soon realize two truths: 1) the thread of life is very delicate and fragile, 2) their ancestors were human with some facing very difficult personal life events by exhibiting some of the most noble human values of creative problem solving, personal sacrifice and resiliency to survive and sometimes even prevailing while some others exhibited less noble values, even criminal behavior. It’s very helpful for personal self realization and making one’s own life choices. The family’s genealogical skeleton needs the family’s history to make it more than just a lot of meaningless “biblical begets”.


Reblogged this on Family History in the Bear County and commented:
Dick Eastman’s musings on family history researchers and their motivations.


To me, genealogy is several things: a jigsaw puzzle – with the added complication of having two (or more) puzzles intermixed and having to find the correct pieces; an intellectual challenge, evaluating evidence and putting it into context, both historical and personal; and a Sherlock Holmesian mystery, to be solved by observation, deduction and inference. The challenge and the mystery share some features, but are distinct and provide different levels and types of satisfaction. More generally, genealogy is like a rocky field, where each rock might harbor some white, wiggling thing of interest and has to be turned over and examined before moving on to the next,
Am I a name collector or a family historian? Something of both, I think. Collecting names is not to be despised – after all, you have to have names to build your history on. But if your only objective is to collect as many names as possible, without the goal of learning what you can of the people those names represent and their times and personal stories, you’re denying yourself and, dare I say?, your posterity the joy of knowledge – of your personal history and the histories of your antecedents.


For me, it is curiosity and history come alive. And the biggest mystery. I love mysteries.
My husband called me a treasure hunter. Always looking for buried treasure and old stuff.
I don’t do puzzles or crosswords, but I must admit, genealogy is the biggest puzzle for me.


I never cared much for jigsaw puzzles, and most crime novels or thrillers held little fascination. Nevertheless, I’ve always been partial to classic mysteries by the likes of Athur Conan-Doyle, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Rex Stout, where the challenge is to solve the puzzle before the solution is revealed by the author. Perhaps it comes from an inborn compulsion to create order out of chaos and find explanations for the inexplicable.

One day my mother handed me a box containing some special keepsakes and mementoes of her mother’s family, including a big fat envelope stuffed with papers that turned out to be the correspondence between my grandmother’s sister and a professional genealogist who had volunteered to help her prove her US Citizenship during the height of the McCarthy era. Then in her 70s, and from a family whose oral history in New England went back to the French and Indian Wars, she had been denied a passport because she didn’t have a birth certificate to prove she’d been born in the USA.

Out of the envelope tumbled 300 years worth of names and dates, transcriptions of obituaries, and bits of biographical information about people who had cleared fields, built churches, and founded towns along a trail that led from Massachusetts Bay, through Connecticut, up into New Hampshire and Vermont, and along the shores of Lake Champlain practically to the Canadian border. My first reaction was “Hey, this is really ineresting,” immediately followed by, “Whoa! Where did this information come from. It might just be hogwash. Gotta find out.”

I haven’t read a mystery in years. Haven’t needed to. There is something very satisfying about looking at the gravestones and burial records for an old cemetery and figuring out who’s who and how they are all related to one another. Building a family tree presents the same sort of puzzle in a slightly different form. Following the trail from one generation to the next, all the way to the roots and back out to the branches, then putting flesh on the bones by learning about the lives they led, the communities they were a part of, and fitting all the pieces together to create an overall portrait of the individuals in their own time and place — bringing order out of the chaos — gives the little gray cells plenty of exercise.


Fantastic post, Dick. I have been researching my family history since the 1960s and will never ‘finish’. I definitely count myself as a family historian in which genealogy or name collecting obviously plays a major, but certainly not whole, part. I can still remember receiving a letter from a lady I was corresponding with about one particular family who said “you must have finished your research by now” and here I am still going strong 40 years later. I teach and run a family history group and, if I may, I will share your post with them. I am always recommending your newsletter; thank you so much for the time you put into it.


I guess my circumstances are mightily different. I was raised in an orphanage Bethany Children’s Home in Womelsdorf, PA – my birth family background was never permitted to be discussed by them nor my surviving mother. I became a teacher and a student of history. I just wanted to know about my background enough that I had to do it on my own. In the process, I began to teach the skills to searching and genealogy/ returned to the orphanage where it all began/ became their Archivist helping other Alumnus and families learn about their lost families of the past. I feel that everyone needs to know who they are and my helping give each and everyone an identity that has been lost over time – I have left a legacy worthy of note. Our Mocavo grant from 2013 began that journey for me. Then we have your service to us all – couldn’t have made it without your knowledge and friendship. Thanks. Carl


Again, another great post. First off, I do love history and history is part and parcel of genealogy. Being French-Canadian, I feel my ancestry has be proved for me and I so wish you had posted the names of the interesting people you cited in the article. On the other hand, I find my wife’s ancestry far more interesting as her family did not know their ancestry. They, as born-again Christians, didn’t know that they were descended from people of faith. In a real sense, I’ve given them back their forgotten heritage. They also did not know that they are descended from at least 27 Mayflower passengers. One goal is to push back each of the lines to the immigrant. The Atlantic Ocean is my boundary for the time being in order to stay focused. In that sense, yes I collect names. However, I also collect the stories that go with those names. How can you forget the slave trader invited to lunch by the Africans not knowing he was lunch? Or the deacon who stole rum from General Knox? Or the ship captain who ran the British blockade during the Rev War to sell his rum? or a name like Haselelpony? Genealogy is a jigsaw puzzle, but it is also a scavenger hunt searching libraries, cemeteries, town halls, meeting distant cousins, to find and PROVE each piece of the puzzle. Sometimes it’s a mystery story, as in why is Hannah Tilson buried in Caribou when she lived her whole life in Oxford County? (Her son was in the Aroostook War and settled there afterwards.) I also keep track of all the veterans and ministers and deacons. Good stories there too. I have proven three Mayflower lines for my wife. Only 20 to go and maybe more if I can break through the handful of brick walls that currently end in Plymouth County. Finally, real genealogy is not a tree or a pyramid. It’s a bramble patch or a chain link fence that goes up, sideways, and down.


    I, too, decided early on that my research would stop at the shores of the Atlantic. Most of my ancestors arrived in North America in the 1600s. Anyone who has an opportunity to visit the replicas of the “Mayflower” or the “Hector,” will instinctively understand how difficult and dangerous it was to cross the Atlantic Ocean on one of those early ships. They are incredibly tiny and fragile compared to the power of the mighty Atlantic. I wanted to find all the ancestors who had made that crossing and find out what drove them to choose such a risky course of action.


    Ruth Satterthwaite June 7, 2018 at 6:25 pm

    Steve, may I share your final sentence with some of my genealogy cohorts? Perfect description!


    Yes Ruth, by all means. I’ve never heard the chain link fence analogy anywhere else. It really fits when you get get to the same ancestor via 5 or six different directions because of cousins marrying cousins with offspring who marry yet more cousins. I’ve also gotten to the point of saying that if your French-Canadian, you’re related.

    Liked by 1 person

    Ruth Satterthwaite June 8, 2018 at 6:30 pm

    Thanks, Steve. Much appreciated!


I think another aspect of tracing your genealogy is our mortality. We want people to know we were here and by extension of genealogy research we know our ancestors were here. I think it helps some of us deal with our mortality.


I would have to say that I am both. My searches are motivation by a love of the stories but I gather names because I know I will often find other interesting connections.
I got into genealogy by happenstance. My mother had been collecting data for many years but since everything was by snail mail searches she had very little data. I was computerizing the data that she did have as a favor when one day, browsing through Tanguay, she remarked, “Oh here’s another one … Catherine Despres … but she’s not related to us.” I was hooked. Hooked simply because in my teenage years of aspiring to be a novelist, the protagonist in my “books” was always named “Catherine Despres”. Turns out she is my 7th great-grandmother.
40,000 “names” later, I can say that it has been an exciting trip. The desire to find out more about these ancestors is never ending … what where their successes and failures? … why did they emigrate? … what role did politics or economic conditions at the time play in their decisions? Questions, questions, questions. And, sometimes, answers that dispute family lore!
My companion since 1994 has been Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter. So, thank you Dick for all the leads you provided along the way.


No matter what, CURIOSITY is the driving force, as Einstein said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious” and “The important thing is not to stop questioning, Curiosioty has its own reason for existing” and finally, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education”


I love mysteries and history and genealogy combines both. I hate not being able to find out what happened to people and have searched (in vain) for what happened to various aunts, uncles and cousins. Family migration fascinates me and I wish I knew more about what prompted an ancestor to move from Quebec to Minnesota to Washington and sometimes back again. And then there is the amazing stories – good and bad.


    Maureen –
    I might (maybe) have a partial potential answer, depending on which part of Quebec and which part of Minnesota that first leg of the journey started and ended. In my s-i-l’s family, they moved from Simcoe, Ontario to the Red River Valley area (Cass Co., ND which borders the river, not to be confused with Cass Co., MN) where soil was good to raise grain (the river floods periodically, too, which can be a disaster – see 1997 flood which put many towns underwater, especially Grand Forks), but it also produces rich topsoil (her family later moved farther west again to MT). There were a lot of families in that migration of English-Canadians from Ontario to the Red River Valley after Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1862, so names in the Simcoe indices are found in Canada and the Red River Valley areas of MN/ND. There was another earlier branch of French-Canadians that migrated to that same area of northwestern Minnesota with Hudson Bay fur trappers and traders, and by then some of them were the merchants and store owners who welcomed the new farmers, many of whom arrived in the +/-1880 time frame when the Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes were also arriving for homestead land (I have ancestors from all three Scandinavian countries, plus four other countries going back to the Mayflower and within 50 years thereafter). It’s interesting geographically and geologically because ancient Lake Agassiz was in that area of MN, and there is a “tree line” – west of which is flat prairie land and no/few trees, so people lived in soddies (sod houses) for lack of wood to build homes until they could acquire enough money to have lumber hauled to their farmsteads to build houses and barns. If they lived in forested areas north, south, and east of the headwaters of the Mississippi, some became loggers and lumbermen. [See “Little House in the Big Woods” by Laura Ingalls Wilder; apparently a relative of hers married someone in my extended family.] Some in my family whose line goes back to the Mayflower via Maine during the Revolutionary War were loggers as well as farmers in MN – the terrain is sometimes flat prairie land and sometimes tree-filled at various points, and yet other portions of 160-acre homesteads have land cleared for growing grain (nowadays add sugar beets), for grazing cattle, and they left a grove of trees as a wind break where they had houses and barns and granaries. The average yearly temperature is ten degrees colder out on the prairies than it is inside the tree line. Blizzards are horrible anyway, but out on the prairies without any protection from the elements they are brutal, not to mention grasshopper infestations, snakes, and the wind which never stops blowing. I understand why some people went mad from the sound of the wind.
    If your family settled in other areas, cancel everything I wrote above, although if the historical info on the Wikipedia pages is of interest or applies to the ancestors you’re researching, it can be interesting, especially the maps – I have a file of nothing but maps, maps, and more maps. [Carver Co., MN is named for a cousin who became an explorer. His father and my ancestor were brothers.]

    Liked by 1 person

Absolutely agree with you…it’s about the history. And since I have many French-Canadian roots we’re probably “cousins”. 🙂


My interest in genealogy started when I was nine and Mother told me I had American Indian ancestry. But who it was or where she lived was unknown. It still is, but the search for her has led me to amazing places. We moved frequently when I was growing up (I went to 15 different schools) but between moves we always came back to southern California and the four grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I was rootless but they were my roots. My maternal grandmother was working on her own and Grandpa’s ancestry, and had charts and letters which filled a box. When she died in 1971, none of the aunts or uncles wanted to be bothered with it, so I offered my closet shelf. Of course, once I opened that box, I was really and truly hooked. My research has uncovered real people who came on the Mayflower, crossed the plains in covered wagons, dug for gold, fought in the Revolution and both sides of the Civil War, witches, scoundrels, murderers, and lots of teachers and preachers. One line in particular was so difficult that it took me 20 years to solve one generation; nothing had ever been written about this family. By then I had so much information collected that I published two books on the family. When I run out of clues on my own ancestry, I work on my husband’s, and then my daughters- and son-in law’s lines, which include French-Canadian, Filipino, and African-American lines. Finally, the Austin Families Association of America asked me to help out with my husband’s ancestral line. I did that, and then took on another line, and another after that. Now I am the compiler for eleven of their ancestral databases. I love the research, the stories, and spreading the information that I worked so hard to find.


I’ve always enjoyed history, researching, and puzzle solving. But I have no children to inherit my research or genes, so I guess it’s mostly about me! I do write family history and share it with extended family. I am terribly disappointed when all I find about someone is dates. Humph! Who WERE they? Is what I want to know.
I am working on a book about a whole community of people who got caught up in the California gold rush. Through my research, I learned about their many ties to one another. I have letters, memoirs, family histories and more. I’ve been to the places they lived in and traveled. These people LIVE in my mind.
There is so much to know, just about the ancestors and relatives from the past two centuries, that I don’t do much going way back in time. Besides, my DNA research has revealed that my paternal line was affected by two generations of infidelities (very recently). This would never have been known otherwise. How many times do you suppose this happens as you go back on the branches? Are all those people REALLY your ancestors?


To me genealogy is a rather large logic puzzle and I am addicted to logic puzzles. I got started on this rather late in life but it is almost an obsession now. I started looking at it as a logic puzzle when my aunt gave me her brother’s work on the family. He had submitted it to LDS and they accepted it but to me there was one glaring error right off the start, why had no one noticed the “man” they had for the father of my 3rd ggrandfather was only 10 years old. It was even on FamilySearch that way. I am still looking for the parents of this 3rd ggrandfather today. We even have 6 DNA matches to my nephew and brother but no connections. Thanks to another family member we have a detailed history of this man from the time his first child was born but no parents.


I am a family historian. After over 20 years of off and on research I am still working on my grandparents. I have been busy gathering stories of the lives of not only my family but also my husbands. I have gotten stories from relatives about my grandparents who I didn’t know because they died before I was born or when I was very young. Yes I do research but I also spend time with the relatives that are alive to learn more about what they know and how they have lived. I still have some mysteries to solve but that will come with time. The records will be there and even more to search but the older relatives won’t always be around.


I enjoy the research. I enjoy travel and both my ancestors and my husband’s ancestors took the road less traveled. What fun! I am fascinated by the impact history had on my family and the role, however small, my ancestors played in history. And my ancestors are teaching me – how to deal with triumph and tragedy. Who cannot be touched to see a thank you note in a newspaper to neighbors for their help after a father lost a wife, cause unknown, and five children, to diphtheria, in less than six months in the early 1880s. But we need to, and this sounds weird, listen to them as they tell their stories.


I began my search because I had so little family growing up. I was born “late” in my parent’s lives so I only had one surviving grandmother. My mother was an only child and my father’s only surviving brother had no children, so I have no first cousins. From the time I could understand the concept of family, I wanted to know where all mine were. So, in the beginning, it was to find the names of these people. But after several years, finding I had a Revolutionary War patriot, and tracing my heritage back to early settlers of Massachusetts, I became a genealogist/historian. I thrive in the search, but then I soak up all I can about the family after the discovery.


Many national groups have land systems that have kinship requirements. Scandinavian and Scottish genealogists have been at work long before NEHGS and the Mormons ever existed. Another good reason is medical: everyone ought to know the potential time bombs in his/her body (and one absolutely has to be accurate). A third reason is that, if people only realized how ethnically mixed we all are, they’d not say some of the stupid and hurtful things that they do.


    … if people only realized how ethnically mixed we all are, they’d not say some of the stupid and hurtful things that they do …
    Amen, brother!


Great article. I like to believe I fall into the Family Historian. My answer to Why I do it is “If not me, then who?”. I found that no one in my family was doing any Family History research, and I had the skills (been working in an engineering office for 20+ years) and I was able to find the time (was reassigned away from from home for last four years). My motivation is being a able to pass onto my Grandchildren the answers to “Where do I come from?” and “Who were my ancestors?”. I have given them two of those answers (for my father and mother) and now am working on my wife’s parents. I find that names don’t mean much, its the history and how our ancestors fitted into that history, that interests the young people. So I give them lots of history and stories, sprinkled with a relating graphic or photo on each page. What I refer to as the “magazine” look or effect.


For me it is an extension of curiosity as in the thrill of the chase. These days I can be my own detective following clues and leads from the comfort of my home (or from wherever I happen to be as long as there is decent wifi) at any time of day or night for as little or as long as I choose. Lots of flexibility there and minimal cost compared to other hobbies. And each new relative I find opens the door to two more to chase. It is a hobby that I never get bored with, even after 50 years of researching. With millions of records and images and DNA data available I am never going to run out of people and avenues to chase. Yes, I concentrate on finding and proving the essential evidence as in names dates and places. The supporting information of photographs, life history, family stories etc are also important but in my case less so than names dates and places. I suppose I am a mixture of all three — genealogist, family historian and name collector. The boundaries between the three are blurred. Above all, no other hobby can be so personal which in itself is an excellent reason to continue ad infinitum.


One of your best posts, Dick – very thought-provoking – thanks! It’s not either collecting names or building a family history – they are two parts of the same process. The collecting names part is just building the structure; the family history part give it substance and meaning. I doubt if anyone reading your column would be satisfied to stop with the mere structure as your friend Linda did.

I have actually spent very little time on my own family history, which is very well-documented anyway. I got started with my wife’s family, which was very sparse, and for which I’ve solved some long-standing mysteries and found some amazing stories. Since then I’ve worked on a number of other family histories, both for pay and pro bono, so I have a sense of what drives people. It’s quite often a result of a broken home, an adoption, or a mysterious ancestor that generations have talked about. They all wanted to know something more than just names, dates, and places. The greatest satisfaction for me has been sharing something about the time and the place where ancestors lived so that they could picture their ancestors as they lived.

Finally, I love the inverted pyramid analogy. Early on I realized two things, which are obvious when stated, but nevertheless struck me: 1. We each contain a part of EVERY one of our ancestors, whether it’s a physical feature or a behavioral trait, and 2. EVERY one of our ancestors was a person living a life as full, rich, and meaningful as each of our lives. Because of this, it is not fair to focus only on the most prominent people, the patriarchal line that contains our surname, or those with the most information available. We honor each ancestor by doing a reasonably exhaustive search to learn about each of their lives.


I am more of a name collector but definitely not by choice. My parents, both now deceased were born in Germany . I was not interested in genealogy before my father’s death and my mother knew very little of her family. My mother’s father who also came over to the US died before I got interested also so there is no one to ask anything of. I posted the little my mother knew of her family on Ancestry and an 8th cousin found me. He has done extensive research on the family and has shared it with me BUT he knows no English and I know VERY little German so it is very hard to communicate and since we are so distant he knows nothing of my immediate family. I glean all I possibly can from him but I so wish I could find out more about the family. Through writing letters to everyone with my father’s last name in the town he was from I did find a cousin but she too knows VERY little about the family. I guess when she was growing up during the war years things like that just weren’t talked about. It seems like once someone had died they were just forgotten. VERY sad!!!!!! I continue on though and will never give up!


Ruth Jordan Thoden June 7, 2018 at 12:12 pm

I was 15 years old, browsing a book I had found in school library. In this book, I found
the phrase, “He who cares not from whence he came cares not where he goes” I was
“hooked” on genealogy – was already loving history due to the high school history
teacher I had — And to this day in my 82nd year of life, I’m still searching my
ancestors and enjoying history.


I have always been interested in family relationships. I remember my mother explained how we were related to a certain family that we were about to visit. That evening I explained to my younger relative that we were second cousins because her father and my mother were first cousins. I was six or seven at the time. At fourteen I was given a narrative of my maternal grandmother’s line. How exciting to learn that my ancestor had arrested George Fox, the founder of the Quaker faith, and then became a Quaker himself. I wanted to know more about these people as well as everyone on my other lines. Research turned up fascinating details. William Penn invited one of my ancestors to teach in Pennsylvania. A distant cousin was one of the doctors attending George Washington during his final illness. I recently learned that my father was also my seventh cousin. It turns out I married my eighth cousin (which might explain why my children seem more like ninth cousins than siblings). Last year DNA gave me a branch of cousins that I would never have found following the paper trail (NPE happens). Names and dates are just the first clue. Family history combines puzzle solving, history, patience and serendipity. It’s better than any mystery novel or TV show. Best of all, I have met some wonderful people along the way and connected with a much larger family than I started with.


My father passed when I was two and for all practicable purposes I never knew him. My mother, sister, and grandmother spoke little or nothing of him. Genealogy studies was my way of learning who he was.

I learned from letters from my grandmother to my mother and father that my mother’s father never spoke to my mother when she and father eloped (I assume a necessary thing and all information leads me to that conclusion very positively.) Her father never spoke to her again.

My father had bad cancer from probably before my birth until his death 2 years later. I got the details of that event from VA medical records. Even got his autopsy.

So who was he. I went to the private school in New Orleans that he and his 4 siblings attended and they had his grade sheets in a brown folder from 1914-1917. From that I learned his strengths and weaknesses OR how he applied himself. The school offered the same information for his siblings and from his youngest sister’s file I read a 3 page, hand written (on lined paper in pencil) note to the school from my grandmother (his mother) admonishing the school on how they had handled her daughter in a situation. I could have closed my eyes and written an almost identical letter (My grandmother died before I was born so I never knew her). So I learned something that had been genetically passed on to me from her.

There is a bit of a con artist in me and from my father’s letters to his fraternity brothers, I learned he had them write to the VA things that he thought would get him the disability rating he needed. (He went straight from high school to WWI and then to college) I then went to the University and got his college transcript. I learned one semester he took law courses and immediately learned why he did not study law anymore.

I could go on for a long time but I think I have made my point. I used the genealogical approach to learn who my father and many of my ancestors were.

I have a “special” personality and an ability to get things done irrespective of the circumstances. In my later studies I found I am a third cousin, once removed, from Huey P Long-Governor and Senator from Louisiana. I can identify in me some of his characteristics.

I perform and teach genealogy because I love the hunt. I dig deep to learn who these people were and what contributions they made or deficits they had. It is not just born, married and died for me but who were they and what were they doing in their lives and how did they fit in the society they existed in.

So I learned who my father was and where many of my traits (both good and bad) came from. That to me has been the value of my genealogical search which is never ending.


Linda’s not a name collector, or at least not a very good one. I reserve that title for those who do little to no research, but simply make a connection to another tree–verified or not–then adds all of those names.

A single Rootsweb tree with more than 1,000,000,000 entries? That’s a name collector.


Wow! Many good posts. And very interesting ones.
To answer the question. “What motivates your family search?”
When I first started reading the article and the posts, the phrase, “curiosity kills the cat” came to mind. The other thought that seems more likely for me is the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Book Series”, as my ancestors came to the US in 1865, going to Chicago, then to Dakota Territory and homesteading there and then to Brookings and Hamlin Counties Dakota Territory, also homesteading in those counties. Life for them was much like the Wilder family. I remember as a child always asking my dad about his parents and grandparents (both emigrated to the US). My paternal grandparents were deceased before I was born so I never knew them. And I felt like I missed something by not ever knowing them, except through my father.
My maternal grandparents had passed away before I was 10 years old and they spoke only in their native tongue, so communications was also lacking there, creating more curiosity.
I have worked on both my paternal and maternal ancestry and have looked up records on line from church books, census etc, so I would feel like I am not a name collector but a family historian, and many of my relatives refer to me as such.
My genealogy started in the early 1970’s when you made contact with relatives through letter writing, asking for data and photos of interests, such as farms, family pictures, and stories telling something about there lives. I published that book in the mid 1970’s and shared it with family for who ever wanted a copy. My genealogy was to be a Christmas present to my parents and they were so pleased that they asked me to share it with all family members. I again did research when the internet became available and am still sharing genealogy with family.
I also search Paternal and Maternal lines for my husband and shared with his family.
Many have thanked me over and over again for my research.
I really enjoy your newsletter, read it faithfully Thank You so very much.


I suspect we start out as name gatherers and bit by bit get drawn in to the stories. I “think” I will be happy to have the names and BMD of seven generations as it is that relative that came to this country and “started” our line. But then……. was reading a death certificate a while back….. and read the line cause of death….. suicide. STOP just collapsed in my chair and stopped ….. took my breath away. Feeling so bad for the wife…….. after a few minutes continued on….. the form explained how he shot himself through his mouth and the angle….STOP again. Collapse in chair and process….. can it get much worse than this? Not really, … there was one of those medical numbers that code diseases…. so with far more searching than it took me to find this death certificate…. I found it was a mental condition due to trauma….. and this relative was a World War II veteran. There is my first story……. that continues to the next generation where his 14 year old son hangs himself…. that ends “the line” for that branch…… but but the wife is still alive … I have a hard time pursuing her. How much to push, how much…… the nieces and nephews don’t respond to contacts but since this woman is one of two living late 90’s cousins that once were 19 cousins there have to be more stories…. happy stories…. how to get them before it is too late. I got into genealogy after my parents died….. so many things that would be so simple to ask…. but the simple way is too late.


I bookmarked this post as soon as it came out, thinking that it was going to attract an avalanche of interesting comments, and it certainly has not disappointed. Thank you, Dick, for posing such an interesting question, and another big “Thank you,” to your loyal readers for posting so many thoughtful remarks and remarkable stories.


My reason for beginning genealogy more than 40 years ago is that I was an abused child. I wanted to find family who were normal! I have had many great adventures and found loving relatives in the US and Europe.


Phyllis W Bickley June 7, 2018 at 5:23 pm

I consider myself a family historian. With each of my (and my husband’s) maternal and paternal lines I have tried to find their history beyond names and dates and found those histories very interesting. My 3rd ggps left France to escape the terror of the French Revolution, part of “The French Five Hundred, arriving in Alexandria, VA only to find out their Ohio land titles were invalid, so settled in Philadellphia. Another line, Anabaptists escaping persecution, eventually settling in Chester (now Lancaster Co) Pa, and the first contiguouis settlers in Weberthal (Weaverland). Our ancestors laid the building blocks upon which our lives find a firm foundation. I am proud to say I am who I am today because of who they were, their committment to stand up for their beliefs, and the strength to go on anyway.


To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain perpetually a child. For what is the worth of a human life unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?
— Marcus Tullius Cicero (3 January 106 BCE – 7 December 43 BCE)
Your friend “Linda” has one piece of paper with eight generations filled out…, and nothing else?!? I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I pity her. I have shelves and boxes of info, documents, plus I have inherited a set of hand-blown etched water glasses that my gr-grandmother brought from Norway in 1883, my maternal grandfather’s confirmation document in its original frame (which I scanned as best I could; it’s huge, but it gives his date of birth as well). I have the (non-functioning) watch worn by another gr-grandmother in a photo, and the same kind of watch with a different case design worn by her mother (minus the fobs for each). And notebooks and books and even more e-books (copyrights long expired) with info about my ancestors and their neighbors and people they knew. And I have more stories and keep searching for more stories yet….
I was born with an insatiable curiosity and the “off” button is nonexistent; I walked and talked early and never got the knack of knowing when not to ask “Why? … Who? When? Where? How?” I became a bibliophile the instant reading came easy to me during the first week in grade school, and with no classmates from second through sixth grade (two-room school my father and family attended), no peer group to hang out with, no TV until the late ’50s, altho I did take piano for a couple of years, reading became the thing that sated my curiosity and whetted my appetite to learn more, all pursued on my own because I am curious. It’s how I have arrived at the age of 72 with the largest private library of anyone I know, and now I’m wondering who I should leave my books to, and which ones to save back that will go with my genealogy info. Besides literature, history was my first love and remains so to this day; one actually needs an accumulated wealth of trivia knowledge to accomplish certain genealogy searches. Etymology goes with that since phonetic spelling comes with the documents from days before spelling was standardized. Thanks to my insatiable curiosity, I have an inordinate amount of trivia info, some necessary, some things I just retain because it is fun to “know stuff.” If I had known about my own ancestors in grade school and high school, history would never have been as dry and dull a subject as my teachers made it then. In reality, history is MUCH more exciting than dry dates learned in school since some of my ancestors were THERE! Things others did affected them; things they did affected others. Their genes are part of me! When I do research I try to use my historical knowledge, maps and photos of locations where the lived, photos of clothing they may have worn, to re-create or re-imagine their lives in my head, to get the tiniest clue as to how they were in life, but that’s only based on dry details in records.
Mysteries can be fun entertainment (NOT explicit blood-and-gore special effects horror movies or books; mysteries that tickle one’s intellect). I do like a good mystery – of the British variety, usually (Agatha Christie, Poirot, Morse, Endeavour, Lewis, Rosemary and Thyme, to name a few – and, believe it or not, the Harry Potter series; the only time I can stomach special effects and computer animation). Dramedies and Britcoms are a hoot when one needs a good laugh (Doc Martin, Kingdom, Jeeves and Wooster). I like a good cop caper – again, usually British, although I’ve found a couple of Austrailian TV series on YouTube that were particularly good (Rush). Canadian mysteries (Murdoch). I like documentaries on history (two on the Revolutionary War are noteworthy; one entitled “Liberty!” won a Peabody; five episodes) and archaeological sites in Great Britain and Scandinavia. If I had another lifetime, the pursuit of forensic anthropology would be a fun thing to do in conjunction with Art History and Art to recreate faces from skeletal structures. I did the local paper’s crossword puzzles before I decided I totally dislike collecting newspapers as garbage or as recycling material, but they aren’t addictive puzzles. Only genealogy can keep me awake for 24-36 hours at a stretch (or, at least before my health issues came about I did do those long research stints).
I finally did do a (23andMe) DNA test a few months ago, and it confirmed my 50++ years of genealogy research. The only “surprise” was finding the name for what I only thought of as my extra-sensitive hearing, but there’s a genetic marker for it: misophonia. My haplogroup makes me related to King Richard III with a common ancestor 13,000 years ago, which is ironic since my historical expertise and one+ overflowing set of bookshelves is entirely about the Tudors, especially Elizabeth I, who remains one of the most fascinating monarchs in history (in my mind).
Family history? High school biology project on genetics, ca 1962. I asked my maternal grandfather, son of two Norwegian immigrants, where they came from (40 years later when I found cousins in Norway and one was a genealogist, I realized that was the port of embarkation, not where they were born and lived, altho one gr-gr-grandmother was born in Trondheim and lived to be 97). Before that as a much younger child I’d begged Mom to teach me Norwegian (as a child she understood more than she could speak), she said to “Ask Grandpa.” He refused to teach us Norwegian “because we were Americans now and didn’t need to know the language.” He died about the time I found a college night course and took Norwegian for two years (and forgot much because there was no one with whom I could practice the language, but the teacher gave us the background story on how and why they are taught two versions of Norwegian in their schools nowadays, plus English as a second language is started in grade school). I often wonder what Grandpa would have thought of his stubborn granddaughter who was determined to learn the language in spite of him. 😉 I knew if I could at least read one of the Scandinavian languages that the other two are mutually intelligible, and that was proven beneficial a quarter of a century later. In my junior or senior year in high school I read “Kristin Lavransdatter” by Sigrid Undset, so I had a good grounding in understanding the patronymic naming system, and the glossary at the end of the book was invaluable (the three books were separated into paperback books years later, but I read the hardcover which contained all three, and then later still got the hardcover book for my own library).
Fast forward, fall 2001, I got my first computer and an internet connection (altho I’d been using the ones at the library for a year after the fifth cousins in Norway were found).
In quick succession I found my Danish ancestors (common name, so found the youngest nine-month old child on the passenger list first).
I taught myself how to restore old photos (at least those without too much damage), got scanners to make photos of old odd-sized negatives. Joined genealogy lists, now have a world-wide network of genealogy contacts – lovely, wonderfully helpful people – I nearly hug the computer screen every time I get a new nugget of info. The first thing one learns is that genealogy research is not done in a vacuum; one must have like-minded people who actually know how to do research in one’s life.
Found documents in Canada about my Loyalist ancestor after I found him and son #2 on the MA Banishment Act of 1778; one document was his will dated 14 May 1798, the other was two group deeds for tracts of land purchased by the Loyalists in New Brunswick. That info had not been part of the official info in the book published about the family in 1935, nor was the court record of the Loyalist’s parents where his mother sued his father when she got pregnant in 1733; a year later the suit was dismissed, his father got the bond back, but she “confessed fornication and was fined £4”! The only thing missing now is their marriage info, and since the law suit was dismissed the reason must have meant they got married; they went on to have more children.
In RI two of my ancestors signed the Portsmouth Compact, and the first pres of RI was my ancestor who died in office in 1647 (other ancestors were also presidents and governors of RI, or held other posts long before anyone thought this country would be a nation). Some of my ancestors signed the earlier Mayflower Compact.
MN put their birth/death indices online, found additional children (infant deaths) no one knew about, got the birth certificates (copies of original documents!!!) for parents and siblings in both maternal and paternal lines…, and lo and behold, the birth certificate for my dad’s youngest sister had the location of birth in Sweden where he was born (only very slightly misspelled), and less than half an hour of inquiring on the Sweden List, I had the answers for him, his siblings, and parents! That last (45-year) brick wall was broken, and I walked on air for about six months over that info, added generations to that, believe I now know why he came where he did (two of his mother’s siblings settled where he ended up in MN, so he had family here; none seemed to know of their existence).
King Philip’s War affected both my maternal and paternal ancestors. One had his head cut off by Indians when the Great Swamp Fight started and it was a week before his body could be retrieved; he had allegedly been out looking for his second son (the eldest is my ancestor). His #2 son was given a traitor’s death for allegedly firing on colonists: yes, he was hanged, drawn, and quartered. There must have been an “Oops!” moment somewhere because his son was allowed to inherit his property instead of having the crown confiscate it. Another ancestor with the Marshfield militia came home and thereafter “suffered bouts of temporary insanity” (PTSD) from what he’d seen in the war.
I found the Revolutionary War soldier ancestor who enlisted in January 1777, spent the hard winter of ’77-78 at Valley Forge, he was sick in hospital at Yellow Springs in June 1778, according to the muster rolls, fought in many battles all listed in his pension file, and after six years and several months at war, his honorable discharge was signed at Newburgh in June 1783 by “G. Washington.” [Wish List: I’d love to have high-resolution colored digital copies of those documents, not just the horrid microfilm images!!!] Yes, I researched some of those battles he was in, and whenever I look at the list, my stomach gets jittery and my mouth literally drops because he somehow came through some difficult battles the war uninjured and went on to receive the hundred acres promised to soldiers in lieu of pay when the Continental Army had no business and no right to promise such a thing.
Then there is the set of paternal gr-grandparents who became adulterers, and after she died, a few years later he “officially” married another woman (I have a copy of their marriage license and a photo of them from what appears to be their wedding day; they both have flowers pinned to their clothing), and that document made him a bigamist!!! He outlived all three women in his life!
There is much, much more that I have found since my first computer, and printouts just added to those three-inch notebooks (yet another overflowing bookshelf). Now I have all kinds of computer files, e-books and images of documents and maps (lots of maps; I love maps!), et cetera – yes, I back them up on at least two jump drives or more. I even have a little file of genealogy humor graphics! 😀
I did eventually get back to genetic illnesses, the subject that got me into genealogy research in high school. Heart issues, including my own, run in both sides of my family, and some of us now have pacemakers (me included; I’m pacemaker dependent now). A cousin who has a rare heart condition consulted me last year about causes of death within the family, and I could give her the info, thanks to my genealogy data since I have causes of death listed, usually from death certificates.
That sounds jumbled, but it’s how Serendipity gives me information; the journey is never in a straight pedigree line; it’s my job to put it in chronological order with appropriate notes. I could go on…, and on…, and on… (and do, if someone lets me ;-)), but suffice to say I think the greatest gift to genealogists is the internet. Yes, I will fight for net neutrality and free WiFi everywhere for everyone. Anyone interested in family history – history in general, including documentaries on video (and there are a few good ones with historical info that is accurate) – needs the internet like we need clean air to breathe. I’m a family historian and compiler of details based on as many documents as I can find, so I suppose I collect names until I can find further information on some of those I can’t find now. I also do research on lineages that married into my family (sometimes not all that far back, but enough for someone to continue the research in a couple of hundred of years if I can’t “finish” the line). Like hobbies I’ve done until I got good at them, I do research because it appeals to me, sates my curiosity, keeps me from being bored senseless, (since I don’t drink, smoke, party). I can’t have a conversation with anyone who is bored or boring for lack of intellectual exercise. I don’t do well with intellectual boredom any more than I do with annoying sounds. Genealogy research is far more entertaining!
Decades ago, pre-internet, I told my best friend that if reincarnation were a reality I’d choose to spend my time between lives in a library so I could be born intelligent…! Then I imagined I’d die while reading. I devoured two or three books a week.
Now that I know I do NOT carry the gene for late-onset Alzheimer’s so my brain should be functioning at top speed for the rest of my life even if the rest of my body is falling apart, I expect someday I’ll be on my deathbed, laptop in front of me, several tabs open to genealogy sites, gnarled arthritic hands tapping at the keyboard… “I just need to find….”


Both, but want to know more. At 72, how my sisters and I wish we had asked more questions. Have started to learn a LOT as more records become available on Ancestry etc, as my DNA report has resulted in answers to questions I didn’t even think to ask, corrected errors (none very significant) AND gave me new insight into grandparents and step-grandparent.


I suppose I’m a bit of both. I want specifically to know all I can of my direct ancestors, but end up on many rabbit trails (perhaps better said squirrel trails) as I scamper along those extending branches of siblings and cousins, and great-grand aunts or, … you get the picture, I’m sure. Sometimes those offshoots are far more interesting than my direct lines. Unfortunately, I’m limited to internet searches for most anyone beyond my great-grandparents, but up until then, I have family members who saved everything! I’m not interesting in proving any relationships to anyone famous, or notorious, or high-bred or royal. I’ve found a lot of plain old ordinary, hard-working folks struggling to exist, surviving comfortably but not extravagantly, along with some ne’er-do-wells. Families are comprised of all sorts. I do have the eternal “why” questions. Why did they leave their home countries, why did they settle then pick up and move across the country, why did they lose contact with this sibling or that parent, and what happened to “Bertin” after WWI? Was “Bertin” even his name?


I suspect that I am somewhere in between. I work harder at expanding the scope of my tree (maybe I’m a “cousin gatherer”?), but I do record the history when I find it. I particularly like meeting new cousins as I discover them. I’ll settle for exchanging a few emails with “new” cousins, but there is also the opportunity to find new friends who happen to be related somehow, however distantly.


I study family history because I’m not terribly close to my actual living family, and don’t share much in common with them, as much as I indeed love them.
The appeal of finding out how my ancestors lived and how the unique chain of events led them to ultimately produce me is greater than the appeal of attending a family BBQ.
I find that the people who are least interested in genealogy are the ones who are very satisfied with their own direct family.


Yes, Dick, this is a most thought-provoking article. Thanks!

I must admit my main motivation boils down to learning who I am, where I came from. Ironically, I hated history in school, mainly because it emphasized name and date collecting, and too often about wars.

My primary interest in family history was instigated by a multi-generational hand-written (undocumented) family tree in my maternal grandmother’s house. Her stories of past ancestors often went over my head, but after she and her children passed, I inherited boxes of mementos from the 100-year-old homestead, which included some 1500 family letters from the 19th century. When I eventually got to sorting and perusing them, I was hooked on piecing together the characters of the folks who wrote them. They farmed, they courted, they had tragedies, they traveled, they cared for each other. I began to assemble their stories, and eureka!, they were part of history! Wished I’d asked Granny many many questions.

On my father’s side, great-grandfather left Ireland for the wilderness of Upper Canada. Half a dozen of his letters back home survived and led my sister to a connection with cousins back there. Some years later, I attended reunions with 200 3rd and 4th cousins in Ireland and 100 in Ontario. There is a special bond with long-scattered (living) blood relatives, especially coming from our immediate family with only one first cousin, whom I’d never met.

Ultimately, the unending detective work, finding new clues and links, is the addiction! (Often more compelling than the tedious but necessary documentation).


I find it usually quite difficult to find personal history to accompany an ancestor or a collateral relative. History of the area can give some feeling for the times but that’s hardly enough. Currently first cousins don’t even communicate which was not the case years ago. Too much smart phones and other distractions I suppose.


Why we do genealogy? To feel connected to our past through our family. To see what traits past down to us. If your lucky enough to find pictures and look for familar features. To know where you came from.


I guess I can claim to be a family historian since I am always introduced as such at family gatherings. And — else why would my cousin and I have spent hot summer afternoons in the attic of the Ponotoc, MS courthouse reading court records and other county records until the sweat and dust make us look as if we had just come in from the fields?

Liked by 1 person

Charlottesville romani November 16, 2018 at 1:24 pm

I’ve been trying to find information on my great grandfather since 1977 with no luck because I’m told in don’t have enough infor mm atio to research.well if in had more information in wouldn’t need anyone’s help. imnunab OK email to know his parebts names so that’s impossible to find. as far as stories go if you started searching for stories when an old relative was alive to tell us so how can anyone know these stirues???


man who was killed in bed by a jealous husband who returned home unexpectedly and found his wife and our ancestor in an indelicate position…. I have not found personal details for every one of my French Canadian ancestors … There are so many. Are you willing to share names for this trio? Looking into lives of ancestors makes us more aware of aspects of the human condition we ourselves have not experienced & teaches us about different cultures in small digestible bites while solving mysteries. Pursuit of family history illuminates & expands our perspective.


Leave a Reply

Name and email address are required. Your email address will not be published.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <pre> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> 

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: