I was 16 years old when I started collecting ancestors the old fashioned way: talking to relatives, looking up census records on microfilm,writing letters with self-addressed stamped envelopes for returned information. I bought books and photocopied blank forms to make family group sheets (once I knew what they were). And all kinds of scribbled notes with things I found, of course all unsourced and impossible to retrace. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but it was interesting.
My maternal grandfather suggested that I write to his half-brother, someone I’d never even met or at least didn’t remember meeting, for information about their shared English ancestry. Since it seemed like a good idea, I sent a letter and got an immediate response along with British newspaper clippings, some photos, and a fabulous picture of my great-great-grandfather. Uncle Lester died six months later, a lesson to me to not dillydally in contacting older relatives.
My paternal grandmother had a memory like a steel trap and loved talking about “her people.” Grandmama, or Miss Susie as she was known in her town, even knew that her husband’s parents, who died when he was age 3, had been married in Virginia and not North Carolina. This little kernal of random information gave me previously unknown names of North Carolina families that I’ve taken back another 150 years. She remembered it because family mattered. And I learned that open-ended questions sometimes generate random memories that are, or can contain, truth.
While in library school in Austin in 1976, I spent time working at the state genealogy library. All those microfilm readers! Books! Kind fellow researchers with experience who answered questions and made suggestions to help me in my research. When Roots burst on the scene shortly after, the library hired me on the spot – right person, right background, right time. It was a thrill to be able to give back something and I learned about research strategies and the joy of helping someone else make a discovery.
I also learned through the years that collecting ancestors isn’t enough. Oh, it’s easy to add names of children to a tree and look for new original sources to add facts. But I want to know their stories, to understand what it was like to be a prisoner of war in 1863, to know what crops they raised, what jobs they had, what it was like to get on a ship and sail for weeks into the unknown. The stories, the backgrounds, make them real.
My task for 2018 is to take the stories in my head, the facts I’ve assembled over the years, and write profiles to share these interesting people with the rest of my family. So I’ve embarked on Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks writing project. Stay tuned!