How to search out your family tree, or then I discovered I was married to myself
Long before computers and online facilities existed, searching out the family tree was for many of us a fairly simple affair. Genealogy was a social affair, a family get-together where tales were told. Family connections were passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition: “Yea, that old coot was a piece a’ work, all right. Married a distant cousin of the Vanderbilts, but they threw him out for lifting the fine sherry from the liquor cabinet at night.” We relied on stories of our parents and grandparents, seldom questioning the information.
Then the genealogy chart was born. Tracing one’s family history became more “hands on” with searching through endless paper documents, visiting homesteads, and rubbing headstones with charcoal and an old sheet. Results were compiled in crude chart.
Relatives could sit down around a nice fire, sip cognac and decide to plot out their family tree. Their memories were less than perfect but it made family feel like family. My family has a such a simple chart produced as Georgia relatives met with Michigan kin over that glass of cognac back in the nineteen forties. That was the beginning of a tree with broken branches.
In the last several years, genealogy has become a big computer business. Folks can now spend weeks, months, even years searching online genealogical records to piece together a picture of their heritage. In these days of micro chips and Internet, people who find it difficult to remember their own names are thrown into a world of downloads, GEDS, websites, and “tiny tofels” – a convention I have yet to figure out.
For the uninitiated, a run-through of these high tech sites yields more information than the average chronicler needs or wants to have in a lifetime. Confusion results and anything from a distorted to a downright erroneous family tree is produced. For example, in the Terms of Relationship list accompanied by the Glossary of Terms on your standard genealogy reference site, there are supposed clues to your familial relationships over time. One list defines terms of relationship used in the genealogy chart. Another list compares meanings of words “back then” as opposed to “now”. Together they could spell trouble for the novice genealogist.
Because of past definitions of relationships, uneducated genealogists might poke into centuries of family history and come up with a scrambled mess. In early times, what we call a cousin could be a nephew, and a nephew could be a grandson. In early wills, a nephew could be either a female or male grandchild. (Give that one to the women’s movement.) Imagine the potential for erroneous allocation of bequeathed property.
Prior to the 1800’s, for example, a male personage could be called a “senior” or a “junior” depending on what order the men in the family had passed away. One moment a man could be a thumb-sucking junior, demanding pabulum, but if his father passed away, he suddenly became a “senior,” perhaps expected to run the family business.
To further confuse the genealogist, there could be a “now” wife and a “then” wife. (This does not refer to the barbaric practice of men today throwing over their lifetime mates for much younger women.). Actually it referred to the designation of who got the loot. Whichever wife (“then” or “now”) was mentioned in the will was the lucky one. One wonders what happened if both were mentioned? Mayhem.
Then there’s the “alias.” If you were an illegitimate child back then, you went by your father’s and your mother’s name, i.e. Jenny Smith alias Jones. Even if you were legitimately born, you may have to join your father’s name to your step-father’s name, Thus, Jenny “the father I like” alias “the father I don’t like.”
In the Glossary of Terms, we have a number of other interesting definitions. When plotting one’s history, it must be remembered that an “ascendant” comes before you while a “descendant” comes after you. Sounds easy? It gets harder. An ancestor is a direct line relative. A collateral is someone with the same stock but a different line (perhaps the folks you don’t invite to the summer family reunion). An ancestor can be b = born or d = dead. He can have a given name, first name, surname or no name.
More on the women. If a descendent is a she, she can become an “UX” which stands for wife, which is another way a husband back then could get even. Who wants to be called an “UX?” Widows became “relicts” or ”relicks.” Another questionable term. A woman who gave birth out of wedlock, a woman abandoned, or a woman who left her husband was called a “grass widow.” According to Anatoly Liberman, etymologist, such a woman was “said to be ‘out at grass’; and when her behavior was such that her next-door neighbors could not any longer bear it, a besom, mop, or broom was put outside the front door, and reared against the house wall.”
I myself diligently applied many of these terms in searching out my roots. Unfortunately, due to my inability to understand the many terms and definitions, or to sort them out, I had two uncles married to each other. Three cousins turned out to be nephews and a niece really should have been a cousin. I had ‘then” wives where “now” wives should have been. And vice versa. In it all, several beloved family members became bigamists or illegitimate. Not that we did not have our scoundrels in our family tree. I could have followed my father’s lead and just left out all unwed mothers and illegitimate children but that would have been cheating. The point was, it became difficult to tell who was in sin and who wasn’t.
Most appalling of all, I had made Phillippe, the patriarch of them all (né 1732) an illegitimate child who’s father had died and left him a senior with his stepfather’s name, throwing the whole tree into chaos. As a result, I had rendered some upstanding ancestors disreputable and, in some cases, threw whole families into absolute scandal.
Copyright Kathryn A Curren All Rights Reserved