An Odd AddictionI don't mean to minimize the experience of people struggling with addictions to substances by talking about my addiction here. But talk, I must.
My addiction is. . .
I am addicted to. . .
Ancestry.com. No, seriously. Wait! Where are you going? I've lost entire days to chasing after clues about ancestors in Quebec in the 1700s. Things don't get done. I don't exercise. I eat somethiing that I can eat in front of the computer.
And I know there are lots of people with similar addictions. Online gaming. Online ***********. Facebook. Ebay. EP. You know who you are.
My husband and I call these "screen addictions." We are all in the midst of an enormous change, and it's easy to fall asleep to what is happening to us as a culture.
But back to me. I know part of this is just a Pavlovian response. I see one of those wiggling little leaves over an ancestor signifying that ancestry has a hint or two or ten about that person. Smart way to get people hooked. Just one more I tell myself. Just one more hint to explore. And if I add the info from that hint to someone in a tree, another hint is likely to pop up. Hit on that one and then. . . You get the idea.
In my mid-twenties my paternal grandmother, facing her own mortality, sat me down and told me about our ancestors. A fur trader in Canada. A woman who was abducted by the Sioux as a child, grew up to have children with one of the tribe members, got “rescued” by her white family, ran back to the tribe with her children. An orthodox Jew from my paternal grandfather’s side.
At the time, I wasn’t all that interested. Now I am fascinated. Hooked. Besides the whole Pavlovian response, reward center dopamine-release, I (and my puzzled, at times neglected because of my search, husband) have wondered—Why now? Why I am I so driven about it? I mean—these are dead people. They aren’t going anywhere. I don’t really need to stay up until midnight tracking them down. They will still be there in the morning.
Tracking down an ancestor takes such careful detective work, looking at marriage records, family records, ship records, naturalization records, census records. The female ancestors are particularly hard to track down; they weren’t included in the census records in the US until 1850 other than as a hash tag. When I discover a clue to a line of the family that has eluded me, it often leads down a rabbit-hole who’s entrance I may not be able to find easily again. So I jump in.
These rabbit holes have increased considerably since I had my DNA tested. I get new DNA ancestor matches every week, as more and more people get a swab of saliva and send it into Ancestry.com to get it analyzed. If their tree is public, I can see the names and places in their trees, see name matches between our trees, and places where we both had ancestors around the same time. I have gotten some verification of my research from these matches, and I have had some puzzling results, as well.
The ancestors on my mother’s side came from Denmark in the mid-1800s. I have had some clear DNA matches into the late 1700s there. I gave up on going much further than that. Denmark has good records, but my Danish ancestors didn’t believe in passing on the same surname each generation. Oh no. If my father’s name was Peder Jensen, my last name won’t be “Jensen,” it will be “Pedersdatter,” while my brother’s will be “Pedersen.” Try tracing that through a few generations! And keep the ibuprofen handy.
So the majority of my research has been on my father’s side, my father who left when I was six-months-old, who I haven’t seen since I was five-years-old. A barren landscape in my consciousness for most of my life. I have lacked curiosity about him in the past. I knew he was an alcoholic, a talented piano pla
It turns out I have a lot of Irish and Scottish ancestry, from a lot of different lines on my father’s side. I had already known that my paternal grandfather was also an alcoholic who left my grandmother with a young child, but saw from the records that his father, my great-grandfather, had also left his wife with a pack of small children. What was this family legacy about? My great-grandfather was German, so no Irish drinking genes to blame there. Why did he leave? What made three generations of men repeat the pattern? If I knew, would it explain something better to me about my father? Is that why I am so fascinated with tracking my ancestors down?
Maybe that is part of it, but not all of it. I think age brings more of an interest in history. I tend to delve deep into one branch of the family at a time. When I do, I want to know about the context, the history. Why did they immigrate when they did? Why did they move from Virginia to Iowa in the mid-1800s? Where did my Métis ancestors disappear to after the 1860 census?
My current research interest? The Salem Witch Trials. I have a few lines of the family dating back to Puritan ancestors living in Salem and the surrounding communities during the witch hunt days. It does not appear that I have a direct ancestor who was convicted and hung, nor one who convulsed and rolled around on the ground naming witches as the source of her torment. I have ancestors in that time who were siblings of people more involved in the drama, who wisely managed to fly under the radar in a dangerous time to be noticed. I seem to have a lot of ancestors like that, sideline observers, not quite famous, a good survival skill to keep a genetic line going.