Genealogical research reveals generational and cultural influences that impact an individual in unexpected ways, and can yield greater insight into one’s personal identity and into God’s purposes in arranging the pathways of earthly life. My decades-long research into my own family has uncovered much more than I ever expected: immigrants, soldiers, farmers; Jews, Protestants, Catholics; wealthy gentry, working-class poor, and a somewhat infamous bookmaker. This is a legacy of many disparate influences through generation after generation.
A brief how-to of family history research.
Historical records tell stories. Birth, marriage and death records yield the following hard data: the legal name of the subject, parents’ names, residence, occupation, event dates and locations. Census records indicate the age of the subject during the year of census, names of other family members in the household, occupations, street addresses, and whether the house is owned or rented. Ships’ passenger lists often state the occupations and intended destinations of the immigrants. Other data that tell the story of a person’s life are found in naturalization records, draft cards, city directories, and tax records. This list is by no means exhaustive, and most of the records can be found online.
The introduction of online sources several years ago opened up a new era of accessibility in family history research. Websites such as www.ancestry.com, www.archives.com, and www.findmypast.com are powerful databases containing records collected from repositories all over the world. Basic data (a name and a date) entered into a search form on one of these websites results in a list of possible records that pertain to the subject. The researcher reviews the records and looks for clues, and the software builds the family tree with the appropriate connections between people. An added benefit of Ancestry.com is that it offers a networking aspect, allowing researchers to connect with each other and to share information and photographs of the same family.
In addition to online sources, there are many repositories offering a variety of historical records to the public. The National Archives (in Washington, DC, and in regional centers around the country), state and county archives, and historical associations and libraries all have extensive collections of records for the genealogical researcher.
The initial process of research is easy and straightforward, however the more deeply one researches, the more puzzle pieces are unearthed, the more interesting the family tree becomes. The unique factors that influence a person’s life are found beyond simple names and dates.
Connections and conclusions
In order to fully understand a person’s history, it is imperative to synthesize the data with the context of the time period and with other circumstances of the individual or family members. For example, in Europe and America, the more respected a parent, the more likely they would have grandchildren named for them. My great-great-grandmother, Anna J. Trotter, fled the Irish Potato Famine of 1851 with her husband and toddler daughter. She was nearly eight months pregnant at the time of sailing, enduring several weeks of arduous conditions in steerage class in order to make a new life in the New World. She gave birth within a month after making landfall in New York. By the end of her long life, Anna had no fewer than five granddaughters named for her. Those facts were culled from the following records: the ship’s passenger list, the date of her third child’s birth, and the later census records of her grown children’s households. What is not contained in the hard data, but is very clear on reflection, is that my great-great grandmother was a woman of character and faith who was esteemed by her children. That is a legacy a family can treasure and emulate.
A very different example is found in the case of my great-great grandfather, William Gordon Schanck. William sustained multiple wounds from combat in the Civil War, and he was captured and held in a Confederate prison camp for three weeks before escaping. He served his full three year enlistment despite the wounds, the capture, and persistent dysentery. Upon arriving home, he found that his wife had died and he had become a single father of a young son whom he barely knew. He ended his days some fifty years later in a charitable home for the poor. The bald facts are gleaned from military pension records, census records, a 1942 newspaper account of his eldest son’s eightieth birthday celebration, and a death certificate.
The sad saga shown in the data led me to research the context of William’s war experience in order to find the rest of the story. A Google search turned up a narrative history of the regiment in which William served, which illuminated what was already known about William himself: after barely one month of training, the regiment was shipped out and thereafter constantly in combat, participating in some of the most brutal fighting of the Civil War, including the infamous Battle of Shiloh and Sherman’s March to the Sea. Today William’s condition would probably be diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and he would be treated and understood. Instead his life deteriorated into behaviors of failure and damage: he contracted a second marriage and fathered two more children, was divorced in short order by his second wife and permanently estranged from all three of his offspring; he died alone and destitute not forty miles from his eldest son. This is a legacy of utter brokenness.
The challenges and the failures of previous generations provide understanding and a deeper capacity to forgive in the present day. Empathizing with an ancestor’s circumstances instills a sense of place in a family continuum and provides valuable perspective on the life God gives each individual. I am proud to be Annie Trotter’s great-great granddaughter, with her legacy of faith and backbone in the face of adversity. I’m also proud to be the descendant of Civil War veteran William Schanck, for from his sad life came valuable lessons about pain and loss.
Ancestry.com. Provo, Utah; c. 2007-2013; http://corporate.ancestry.com/about-ancestry/
Findmypast.com. Venice, California; c. 2013; brightsolid publishing online; http://www.findmypast.com/content/company-information
Findmypast.co.uk. London, United Kingdom; c. 2013; brightsolid online publishing limited. http://www.findmypast.co.uk/content/about-findmypast/company-info
Archives.com. c. 2013. http://www.archives.com (No company location available.)