Like An Annoying Emotional Itch

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to know more about my family history. My father’s father was gone before I was born, so all I know of him was what I remember from overheard stories from childhood. The same is true of my mother’s mother. What were they like? How many siblings did they have? What were their parents’ stories?

In addition, since first hearing the rumor on my wife’s family history—that she may be related to the actor, Clint Eastwood—we’ve both wondered whether there was any truth to it. More importantly, she also knew little of her family’s history past two generations.

As I’ve gotten older, the need to know more about our roots has increased. One of my goals for this year was to find a way to pursue as many branches of our family trees as possible.

When I discovered that major genealogical websites provide tremendous amounts of information for free, and then open the research gates wide for a limited trial, well, it was sort of like finally having an emotional backscratcher to take care of a lifetime itch.

Up Into The Branches

After firing up a free trial with three genealogical sites, it didn’t take long before I’d progressed up to four generations on most lines of our ancestors. This was so intoxicating that I rarely paused long enough to cross-reference what I was seeing…and who I was adding to our family tree.

You see, literally millions of people have been doing this ancestral searching long before me. Many of these research sites have existed for decades (Ancestry.com turns 35 this year). It soon became clear that lots of people also found it intoxicating to simply add other’s genealogical work to their family tree, without any cross-referencing, or even applying logic. Once you get rolling, you’ll quickly find a name that seems to fit a missing great-great-great-great someone, so you add them to your family tree, assuming that the suggestion offered from the software is based on solid research. Then you are served a suggested name for that new addition’s father or mother. “Wow! We’re six generations back!” You jump ahead to research these new names. But you can get caught up in the ease of “adding” and forget to complete the “research.”

Only later do you realize there’s an impossibility in your tree, because one of the people you added from another amateur genealogist’s family tree was married before they were born and had their first child at age one. And they lived to a Methuselian age.

Um…what?

It seems ridiculous. Trust me when I say that unless you have spent quite a few days using these ancestral tools, making mistakes like this are all too easy, once you have chased ancestors up five or six branches of your family tree.

To Touch Fluttering Twigs

By the time my free genealogy trials were ending, I’d followed many of the expanding branches of our family trees back five hundred years or more.

Granted, it can be quite sketchy trusting the validity of connections that old. Still, it’s hard to describe the impact of seeing your family tree going back so far. It’s sobering, yet exhilarating. It’s also somber. Seeing the image of a headstone of a great-great-great-grandmother you didn’t know you had, uploaded by someone you have never met before but are somehow related to, is deeply moving. And, from time to time, it’s dazzling.

Many an unexpected discovery set me staring at the monitor for minutes:

  • I could barely comprehend looking at a copy of my maternal grandfather’s boarding pass to the Cunard Line’s Lucania, on August 11, 1900. At the ripe age of 16, he left his home in Norway to immigrate to the United States, never to return.
  • Finally understanding the complexity of finding ancestors in Norway, before the government required its citizens to carry a formal “last name.” Prior to the early 1900s, Norwegian names consisted of the given name (first), patronymic name (father’s) and farm name. For example, Peder Johnsen Berg would be the son of John and have lived on the Berg farm. But Peter, Petter or Per might be used. And if he moved to work on a different farm, his “last name” would change accordingly, since it functioned as an address.
  • Confirming that Janet is related to Clint Eastwood, through Judge Asa Eastwood. His son, Lewis, is Clint’s great-great grandfather. Asa’s son, Enos, is Janet’s 2nd great-grandfather.
  • Discovering in Janet’s family tree distant relatives who fought in the Civil War, as well as the War of Independence. At least one Colonial woman witnessed her husband and sons killed; then she was kidnapped by the natives that destroyed their colony. There were many that immigrated from England, Scotland, Ireland and even France.

And Falling Leaves

By only working away at this life-goal project for an hour or so in the early mornings (plus some full weekends), in two weeks I’d assembled a family tree extending over 600 years (in a few cases) and 1800+ people.

And the result of that work was an intensely humbling perspective on our own lives. Because whether some of those names hanging from the branches of our family tree are outliers or incorrect, most of them are our actual ancestors. We are their descendants. We have them in our DNA. In short, we are inextricably connected to ourselves through their past. Their fears…hopes…bravery…failures.

Coming to grips with those you come from is like conducting an emotional archeological dig. It changes your view of your world.

Predecessor Precedent

In an era that celebrates the selfie and repudiates the wisdom of the past, journeying back into our family tree presented a jarring reality check.

A common worldview in our day is that this generation is the smartest, the most progressive, the most daring. In short, the best.

But to see the world this way requires two decisions that are worthy of suspicion. The first decision is to accept the notion that the longer humanity exists, the better it becomes. There are daily examples of how untrue that notion is.

The second decision is to willingly exercise unbridled hubris.

Because if we believe that humanity only improves over time, then it is easy—if not necessary—to reject the lessons of the past, as well as the people who learned them. In other words, today’s “wisdom” can only be better than the past’s. So, our decisions can only be better than those of our ancestors. Of course, our “truth” can only be “more” than those who came before us.

Without question, our ancestors would have called this worldview arrogant. So would Merriam-Webster.

The Meta-Ancestor Tree

May old-time wisdom smack us upside our collective head, when we act as if we are the best that humanity has to offer.

The apple never falls far from the tree.

You see, arrogance is not progressive.

Especially when it’s falling from humanity’s ancestral tree.

Connect with the legacy of your ancestors, and you replace arrogance with humility and perspective.

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

~Abraham Lincoln

And to think that one of our relatives almost certainly heard him say those words. That’s humbling. The world could use more of that.

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