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  • Barb French

Why genealogy?


My grandfather, Bill Wells, with my mom, Stephanie, circa 1944. I don't know the dolly's name.


Why did I start?


Genealogy is a big-business hobby these days, but back when I started in 1994, it was not the huge phenomenon it became with the advent of online genealogy. Back then, it was libraries, books, endless sessions getting seasick watching microfilm roll by. We were thankful to have the giant index books, typed and printed on thin onionskin paper, for some of the federal census records (more microfilm). We had newspapers (more microfilm) but only for those local to us.


Around 1994, I had finished a master's degree in instructional design, but was looking for something to do with my unused bachelor's degree in history. I had attended grad school for history before realizing I was temperamentally unsuited for academia (I actually had a professor tell me that students were a necessary evil, because the job of a professor is to get tenure, not to teach. This was a relationship doomed from the start).


My grandfather, Bill Wells, was town historian for Clayton, Jefferson County, New York. Before his death in 1985, he'd started a family tree. Perfect, I thought. I could pick up where he left off, do this on the weekends once in awhile, gradually add names and see what happened.


I was in for two big surprises.


First, genealogy became a passion. I realized how much I missed historical research, and this was something I could really sink my teeth into. I loved every part of it -- analyzing sources, digging into and discovering resources I never knew existed, touching things my ancestors had touched.


Second -- and two years passed until a distant cousin thankfully pointed this out -- my grandfather had made one big, big, mistake in the tree.


It was also an unusual mistake. Getting a distant female relative's maiden name wrong is a relatively common issue. Getting the full name of my fourth-great-grandmother correct, but marrying her to the wrong man, was not.


Nancy Patterson was only married once, and for over forty years. Her real husband was my fourth-great-grandfather Henry Smith Wells. But my grandfather had identified him as a man with the same first initial in a neighboring town: Horace Clough Wells. Never mind that Horace also only had one wife, Livonia Blaisdell, and had several children with her, none of whom was my third-great-grandfather William. So I ended up throwing out over 300 "relatives" from my tree, and the brick wall of Henry Smith Wells has been up ever since.


I don't blame my grandfather for making the mistake. He had been steered wrong by a town clerk who had clearly guessed at the identity, and he'd taken her word for it (I found the offending postcard in his notes). But I could blame myself for not double-checking his work. Once I started looking at simple stuff like census data, it was clear that Nancy was married to Henry, and they were the parents of William. But I had just built on the existing tree. Now one of my first pieces of advice to new genealogists is this: if you've inherited someone else's tree, the first thing you need to do is verify their work. Even if the person who built the original tree went to an Ivy League school for history, and was a town historian. Check, check, check.


But what kept me going was that this was REAL history. One of the things I had become disenchanted with about the study of history as practiced at the academic level is that much of it seemed to be about "great men" and great events. The greatest complaint I hear from people who hated history in school is that it seemed irrelevant.


Genealogy makes history relevant, because genealogy is the history of ordinary people. Sometimes these ordinary people interacted, directly or indirectly, with great events, or even great people from time to time. You may have had no interest in the Civil War, until you find out that your own third-great-grandfather participated in a particular battle, or was captured and died in a prisoner-of-war camp, or enlisted in the Union in a state that had declared for the Confederacy. What was a distant set of facts you had to write on an exam paper in eighth grade becomes real -- a truly earth-shattering event for those who lived through it, with actual personal consequences.


My own family tree is far from done. No tree is "done". But I also enjoyed helping others discover their own roots and solve problems for others, which is why I decided to turn part-time professional in 2011.


Plus, while online genealogy has revolutionized the way everyone works now, it's just one toolbox. I've heard estimates that only about 5% of all genealogical data is online -- personally, I think that estimate is way too high. From what I see in the many libraries, archives, back rooms, offices, courtrooms, repositories, and boxes stashed in people's attics, there are millions of pages of undocumented, un-digitized, un-catalogued resources out there. There are millions of pages of documents that aren't as useful as they could be due to lack of indexing.


And that's where a local genealogist comes in. There are amazing hidden resources everywhere in this great state where I live that a person living farther away can't access without knowledgeable help. I hope I can lend what I've learned to help the next person make the great breakthrough.


Thanks, Grandpa. For everything. Even the big mistake.


Maybe especially the big mistake. It made me a better genealogist.

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