Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Procrastination by way of genealogy

My hobby recently, in an effort to both avoid writing my paper for PSU and distract myself from the hell that is waiting to hear back on my PhD apps, has been genealogy.*

Genealogy is one of those rare hobbies that even other genealogists simply do not want to hear about. No matter how fascinating your family history is,** or how many of those family members were alive in recent memory, it's simply not interesting to anyone other than yourself.*** Even other genealogists in the family start to glaze over after 10 minutes. My grandmother will go on for hours about the family, and even though it's my family too, I quickly start wondering exactly why anyone cares.****

I've discovered why: it's addictive. You may nod in agreement, but I don't think you understand. I've barely been at work on my tree for a month, and I've already added 1,800 people who are somehow related to me.


Clearly, genealogy is the best procrastination device ever created.

Part of the attraction is that my grandmothers (yes, both of them - I really didn't stand a chance) had already done a fair bit of genealogical work. On my mother's side (the less obsessive side of the family), this mostly took the form of the back of shopping lists scribbled with names and dates taken from gravestones, along with a couple cheat-sheets created by my mother. (wait, Duffy was whose mother? So who are the O'Learys, then?) On the obsessive side of the family, I had access to 6 stapled reams of paper detailing each ancestry line back either to 17th century Massachusetts or to the 19th century immigration from Ireland (usually the latter). Both these things were useful for laying the groundwork, and after that, ancestry dot com was happy to provide me with census listings and birth certificates and the like.

I found my grandparents' marriage license. How cool is that? They'd probably rather I didn't, as it was only 6 months before my mother was born. Oops.

What I find most fascinating, however, are the glimpses of average life from the 19th and early 20th century. My great-great grandmother married to save herself from the almshouse - which is where her mother spent 50 years, because neither of her two children were ever settled enough to take her in. I wondered why she didn't get a divorce when her husband left her in 1900. But how could she have, with 12 children at home, and her mother waiting in the poor house? Her sister married three times for the same reason - but even that wasn't enough, for after her death, her own daughter ended up in the almshouse as well.

My god-knows-how-many great grandmother, Mary, stated in 1900 that she was a mother of 13, but only 4 were living. All but one survived infancy. Two died before they reached 13. One died in the Civil War. Three died around 1880, between the ages of 14 and 18 - presumably from the same disease. One died at 41, and one died in prison.

Granted, Mary lived to be 80, so I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that she outlived so many children. But it really is quite sobering.

Oops, sorry - I think I just did what I complained about at the start of the post. (are you glazing over yet?)***** But there's the point: genealogy isn't necessarily interesting. History, at least as far as I'm (and probably you're) concerned, is. But history, especially modern American history, tends to, by necessity, gloss over the majority of people. While I was the curator of the now-defunct colony museum, I researched and exhibited about the wealthy, famous artists who lived there. The ordinary, working class people, however, only showed up when they did something notable for the "important" people - when they were their housekeepers, or their models, or their mistresses.

The flip-side is the attention that we now pay to the lowest in society: the immigrant girls working in the mills; the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire; the slums. With such extremes, it's easy to forget that there was a middle ground, especially in the rural areas where there weren't factories or wealthy artists.

Out of all 1800 people that I've found in my tree, only one young woman ever worked in a mill. Only one was an artist. Most were farmers, laborers, furniture makers, lumberjacks. Most did absolutely nothing of note, whether that be producing artwork or fighting for humane working conditions.

It's nice to be reminded of that once in a while. History is written by the victors, but it's made up of the millions of people of little-to-no note.

Maybe that's why genealogy is so dull: it's just the ordinary people, without the historic struggle or the glamour. Some days, though, I think I'd rather talk about the woman who watched 9 of her children die than the artist who produced triumphal monuments, using his mistress as the model.

* You can add "avoid writing a new blog post" to the list. It's been 5 months since my last post, but I'm going to pretend it hasn't been nearly that long. Blame Twitter for my prolonged absence.

** Do you know how many Mehitables are in my family? More than 5, and that's already more than 5 too many.

*** Worse than Mehitable, if you can imagine such a thing, is Mindwell. Seriously, who names their kid that? It practically guarantees she won't mind well, if only to spite you.

**** I'm not sure about Brainard as a name, either. Brainard's almost as popular in my family tree as Glen(n), which is rather nicer - but I'd actually recommend the former, as all the Glen(n)s in my family took off and left their wives and children. Seriously - Glen(n) doesn't have a good track record among the Vaulting ancestors.

***** Patrick, on the other hand, is a lovely name, but with 2 Patrick Duffys, 3 Patrick Costellos, a Patrick Byrne, a Patrick O'Leary and a Patrick Magee in my family history, I'm going to recommend against.


Anonymous said...

Mehitable, seriously? And spelt like that? I always assumed Don Marquis made the name up.

As to the genealogy, my mother does a lot of this, so I know that some way back in my ancestry, though not in the direct line because ironically he had no children, is a man who somehow wound up with the name Offspring Thomas. It's just impossible to stop the drunk vicar explanations rising to the mind...

Ralph Hitchens said...

Indeed, as you say, it's the glimpses into everyday life in a bygone era that fascinate the historian in us. I am indebted to my father and my aunt for much of my family tree (on one side). We discovered that my great-grandfather, born into the working class in Cornwall (UK), got enough education to become a successful mining engineer in the late 19th century. Around the time of the Boer War he & the family were living in South Africa, where he died under mysterious circumstances, widely believed to have been murdered by his business partner. The family was abruptly demoted back to the working class, there being no "safety net" worth mentioning. This led to a progressive diaspora of the children to America, where my grandfather arrived in 1907 (age 20) with $28 in his pocket. He worked as a laborer in the mines near Duluth but found his path into the middle class through religion. A devout Methodist, he preached and read scripture to such effect among his fellow miners that the local Methodist hierarchy singled him out & sent him on scholarship to a seminary. His offspring were able (thank God!) to survive the Depression and keep us afloat in the middle class.