My Google alert for genealogy turned up some alarm this past week about the dangers of relying too heavily on the Internet for genealogy research.
I’d just add that the belief in a Big Rock Candy Mountain of genealogy wonders predates the arrival of Ancestry.com. A lot of people love the idea that somewhere, somehow, all the genealogy records they need will be in a single place. If they evolve beyond a casual interest in genealogy, they soon find out that:
1. People generate all sorts of records in all sorts of places, some of which don’t share their records with big repositories, whether out of inertia or sheer desire to be annoying.
2. If you go back far enough, people didn’t generate much in the way of records, period. In which case no “central repository” is going to give you everything you need, anyway.
3. The way home to Kansas, Dorothy, is with your own two feet. You just gotta belieeeeveee.
When I first started my genealogy quest, Internet databases were practically nonexistent. But the Big Rock Candy Mountain idea was still out there.
I’d often talk to a relative about setting up an interview, only to be told that I simply HAD to journey to Salt Lake City (or order up a couple of FHL microfilms) and I’d find everything I needed to know. It was funny how people never saw themselves as my most important genealogy source. No, there had to be a Big Universal Official Source somewhere.
So I wouldn’t say the Internet caused this situation, although it certainly has intensified things. The problem is the myth of a one-stop solution, and it’s worth a good rant.
Because getting past this idea of the Universal Genealogy Bat Cave is so important. It’s such a barrier to creative thinking and problem solving. And once it drops by the wayside, a lot of supposedly impregnable brick walls can come tumbling down.
Don’t you hate it when Grandpa turns up with a surprise sibling?
Mind you, it was no surprise that my maternal grandfather John Rudroff had a sister. We knew he was the youngest of ten children [it turned out to be eight], a major factor in his decision to emigrate to the USA in 1925. I was fortunate to know his parents’ names, and the name of his birthplace — Kottweinsdorf, in Upper Franconia — but that was it. He could have had seven sisters, for all we knew.
But I put off learning more, partly because dealing with my paternal side seemed more urgent, and also because I had cold feet from a story about one of my mother’s Rudroff cousins getting a chilly response when trying to contact the Kottweinsdorf family on a visit to Germany in 1962. Scary!
The Internet, patron saint of chickens everywhere, broke this particular logjam. Scrolling Ancestry’s discussion boards one day, I noticed a post from a German researcher, Jörg Ruthrof, responding to a genealogy inquiry about Kottweinsdorf. I ventured an email to him and far from biting my head off, he responded with a gracious, detailed account of Rudroff family research on the German side of the pond.
He was happy to hear about my grandfather John and his brother, George (who emigrated in 1896). The German family’s genealogy had no details about them after their emigration dates to the USA. Could I explain more about them? And about their sister, Anna Kunigunde, who emigrated to the USA in 1907?
Sure … WHAT?
Grandpa had had a sister in the USA? My mother had never mentioned such a person. My Rudroff cousins never heard of her, either. She has been elusive in U.S. censuses, although Ancestry’s immigration database shows the departure from Germany of Anna Kunigunde Rudroff (born Kottweinsdorf) in 1907, along with a U.S.-Germany trip in October 1914. Of course, she might have married, although it would seem she’d be somewhere in the 1910 census, at least, as a Rudroff.
Recently another possibility surfaced when I found a Brooklyn Eagle death notice of June 29, 1926 for a Sister Mary Rudroff of Brooklyn, N.Y. Could this be my relative (having adopted a new name as a religious)? Off I charged to the New York City death certificate database, where indeed there was a certificate number for a Maria Rudroff, death date 29 June 1926. Alas, her age was given as 26, far too young to be my great-aunt, who would have been 43 in that year.
So, foiled again. Although the experience still had some value in opening my eyes to yet another way in which female ancestors’ identities are obscured to us, at least if they’re Roman Catholic. And next time I’m at the archives, I’ll go take a look at that Maria Rudroff certificate to see who she was and where she came from. One never knows.
No point in saving this for the Monday links roundup: Twilight star Robert Pattinson is related to Vlad the Impaler, also known as Dracula. The connection is through Pattinson’s genealogical link with the British royal family. (Of course! Everyone’s related to the British royal family!)
I’m always a bit torn as to whether goofy roots stories like this are good or bad for genealogy’s image. I suppose more than anything else, they’re a harmless diversion.
In related vampire bloodline news, fans of True Blood might want to take a look at the (fictional) genealogy of Sookie and the Comptons, gleaned from the novels by Loving True Blood in Dallas.
My Rule No. 1 for talking about genealogy at a party is simple: Don’t.
Rule No. 2 is: Unless they ask.
Which brings me to Rule No. 3: And then you’ll probably be sorry.
Here’s my breakdown of the usual conversational suspects:
The Comedian: The person who asks you to define some [allegedly] difficult genealogy term like “first cousin twice removed”, using your good-faith attempt to respond as a launching pad for an [alleged] humor riff. “Ya lost me at great-great-grandfather! So who’s my third cousin once removed? Hahahahaha!” Genealogy sure is complicated! And aren’t you a nerd!
The Anti-Roots Ranter: The Man (or Woman) of the People who believes genealogy shouldn’t be a hobby and looks down on you for being an elitist roots snob — unconsciously betraying their own rabid snobbery while they’re at it. I vented at charming length upon this topic in this post.
The Well-Meaning Fantasist: Sort of the flip side of the Anti-Roots Ranter. The person who always asks whether you’ve found the family’s direct connection to Queen Maeve, or how you’re coming along with figuring out where the third brother went after they got to America.
The DNA Dynamo: The person who is put out that you still haven’t isolated the gene that is producing all that heart trouble/left-handedness/alcoholism/stamp collecting in the family line. Resist the temptation to ask: “What’s the hurry — are you taking out a patent?”
Of course, there are people out there who ask about genealogy and are genuinely interested in hearing your answer. Try not to be too wary and suspicious when you talk to them. I know it’s hard, though. Life would be easier if we had secret handshakes for this sort of thing.
Over on the Brooklyn genealogy email list, correspondent Julie Parks recently contributed an interesting search tip for the Fulton newspaper database, a great New York source. The tip: searching by your ancestor’s street address as well as name. As she notes, it’s true you can pull up a lot of information about people who are not your ancestors, particularly if they lived in apartment buildings. But one might get lucky, too. Some respondents to the initial post didn’t have much luck searching address alone, but others got results with a name/address combination.
I have only just started playing around with this option myself — it’s pulled up a couple of articles I had already found. But I’m looking forward to experimenting with it some more to see if some of my more elusive ancestors might pop up.