Genealogy: Avocation, Addiction or Affliction?

Virgil HoftiezerBy Resident Virgil Hoftiezer — 

What do you call someone who spends their vacations in cemeteries, courthouses and libraries and all of their spare time hunched over a computer crawling through the internet web like a crazed spider? These are the same people who talk to themselves and then, occasionally, shout “I found him! (or more rarely her)” in libraries or abandoned cemeteries. Often folks who are similarly affected gather around these people to share their jubilation.

This is the cult of the genealogist. A genealogist is a person who knows more dead relatives than living ones; a person who believes that blood is thicker than water and that seventh cousins once or twice removed are close relatives.

Wikipedia provides a good definition of Genealogy as “the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history.” (Genealogy translates from Greek as “generation knowledge.”). The reasons people “do” genealogy are as varied as the individuals involved. Some folks just want to know where their ancestors came from, while others wish to preserve the past for future generations; some do it out of curiosity or for medical or legal reasons. Genealogy, which is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the United States, should come with a warning label: “Caution: this is addictive!” As it is said about potato chips, “You can’t eat just one,” neither can you research only one generation; each person has two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents and soon you are entangled into the web of family history.

Some genealogists investigate only their individual surname or just their direct line. Others, like myself, research all of their ancestors. After all, we each carry more than half of our mother’s DNA. In addition to her half of the nuclear DNA, our mother provides all of our mitochondria. Mitochondria are the organelles (little organs) in our cells that produce the energy for all cellular functions. Mitochondria have their own DNA so are capable of division. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA can trace our maternal line back from our mothers.

Because of my extended interest in genetics and my addiction to genealogy, I research all families, including the collateral and allied lines (i.e., the in-laws). As a result I have found much more consanguinity (marriage of related individuals or intermarriage between relatives) than I ever imagined existed. “Kissing Cousins” was the rule rather than the exception in some situations.

For me, one of the more intriguing aspects of genealogy is the “whys”, why did my ancestors do what they did?, why did they go where they went?, why did they stay where they stayed? or why did so many of them try so hard to avoid detection by future generations? Names and dates are only the beginning framework on which we add layers of information to develop a much broader understanding of our ancestors.

As a result of genealogy I have had to learn or relearn history and geography. There is much U.S. history that I never knew. For example, I never heard of General Order No. 11 before I started my research on some families in Missouri during the Civil War; when I visited Missouri everyone there knew of General Order No. 11. Genealogical research has forced me to reexamine my views regarding war, especially the Civil War; what were the causes?, how were individuals affected? and what were the long term effects?

Borders continue to change – some ancestors lived in two or three different states and three or four different counties, but they never moved, the borders changed. Vital records are generally kept in county court houses and sometimes it is a challenge to locate the proper location of the records. So genealogy is educational and keeps the mind active.

Genealogy notes degrees of kinship that link individuals. Kinship has both legal and moral implications which governmental and religious institutions consider in allowing or banning marriage between individuals. One only has to consider the six wives of Henry VIIII in England to understand the importance of kinship in changing the course of world history. In the USA, most states have laws concerning marriage between related individuals.

Relationships can get very confusing, especially in families involving remarriages and multiple partners or in families that simply address all their relatives as ‘cousin.’ The term ‘cousin’ has changed definitions since colonial times. There may also be regional variation in the usage of terms, e.g., great versus grand to describe uncle/aunt/ nephew, etc.; the most recent consensus seems to be that the terms, “great” and “grand”, are interchangeable when discussing such relationships. Every genealogist has to learn that ‘once removed’, ‘twice removed’, and on down the line describes the number of generations separating a person or persons from a specific or common ancestor.

All genealogists have one or more “brick walls” or dead ends where the search for the next generation is stalled due to lack of information (perhaps due to a ‘burned’ court house), unavailable resources (no records were kept) or ‘not a clue’. But it is the thrill of the hunt, the mystery to be solved, the evidence to be weighed (especially conflicting evidence), conflicts to be resolved and the challenge of where to look next that keeps genealogists going and going – like the energizer bunny.

Genealogists have the annoying habit of asking for verification. Every family has a relative who “has already done all the research”. Unfortunately not all family histories are accurate. Without documentation, one false entry throws the entire account into doubt. With documentation, each fact stands alone and any conflicting evidence can be reviewed and considered separately. In addition, new information is probably available. New technology has changed the way genealogists do research and keep records. With the internet, much more information is now available to us within the comfort of our own homes and no one spends a small fortune in postage anymore. DNA ‘testing’ is the latest new tool in our search for relatives. But all the new technology has not changed the ‘rules’ for the genealogist, it has just changed the way we look for ancestors and other relatives.

Finally, for me, genealogy borders on being a religion. It keeps me on the straight and narrow (at least it keeps me off the streets and out of the bars). It takes me to calm and quiet places, like cemeteries and libraries. It is inspirational and provides lessons in consequences and history. It even directs me to church; after all, where else can you find baptismal records?