What Got you Started in Genealogy?: Writing Challenge

This gets asked periodically, especially on Twitter and I usually reply with my true, but fairly rote answer. But thinking about what got you into Genealogy might be a good  exercise for all of us, whether beginning or seasoned, genealogists. It does not matter how well you write or whether you plan to share this. You can write a narrative or jot down a list.

Here’s what you might include:

  • The date or how old you were when you started?
  • Where were you living?
  • What or who inspired you?
  • Where did you start?
  • Who did you talk to?
  • How did you conduct your research?
  • Any interesting incidents or stories come to mind?
  • Who would be on your gratitude list?
  • What would you do differently if you started anew?
  • What has given meaning to your research?
  • What discoveries are you most proud of? (This could be a separate writing prompt)
  • What have you discovered about yourself or what traits do you share with your ancestor(s)?

You need not answer all the questions or in order. Feel free to add your own and share in the comments if you wish. Below I will share my story, parts of which I have shared before.

I married young in the early 1970’s and moved 3,000 miles from where I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area to a small town in Pennsylvania: Emporium, in Cameron County which was 95% forest lands. The town where I landed averaged about 3,000 souls and its main claim to fame is, as the home of Sylvania televisions, flash bulbs and the like. So unlike some similar rural towns in the area, there was a “brain trust” that took it away from the typical Allegany Mountains backwater town. However, it was quite the culture shock to a girl raised in the shadow of San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley suburbs. Many things struck me. We arrived at the height of peak color in October—the natural beauty and wildlife was stunning. My husband’s family was warm and welcoming and refreshingly normal. In some ways quite a contrast from my unpredictable and tumultuous family. Predictability was a weekly Menu posted in the kitchen and a set time for dinner each night that never varied.

In any event my husband quickly found a job working for the Pennsylvania Forestry Department and I joined the ranks of unemployed housewife living with my in-laws. I indulged in all sorts of arts such as knitting, crocheting, macrame, pressed flower paintings, embroidery, cross stitch, sewing and what not. I became a consumer of magazines like Better Homes and Gardens and Family Circle. And it is there that I found it. This less than 2 page article provoked a half century of happy ancestral pursuits. This was pre-Roots, Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which turned many in our country into budding genealogists. It was followed by a film in 1977.

Copyright Family Circle Magazine Nov 1972

So armed with this article I decided to work on my husband’s family since they had lived in Emporium for 3 to 5 generations. This was much easier than starting with my family who enjoyed hopscotching across the country. I was particularly lucky that the Cameron County courthouse was less than a half mile walk away. And unlike in my family where all 4 of my grandparents had died. One of my husband’s grandparents was still living and many of his great aunts. Furthermore the 3 cemeteries where his ancestors were buried, were a short drive away. So in no time I was meeting and interviewing his family and collecting lots of information. I particularly remember visiting his 3 great aunts, Mary, Annie and Edna born COLSON, sisters of his grandmother Edith Amanda (COLSON) WHEATON. It is here that I took these (very poor quality photographs). I regret not taking more photographs including the front pages of the Bible and photos of all those I interviewed. This was one of my most interesting lessons. None of these three sisters had any clue where their parents were born in Sweden. I remember being incredulous. Furthermore they suggested that their father’s name may not have been COLSON! This has been a long standing brick wall—but with some interesting DNA clues.

Other remarkable findings: my father-in-law said his father did not have a Middle Name just the initial “H.” At the courthouse I discovered that the “H” stood for Hobart. After spending many hours at the Courthouse I noted all the Dockets had informative names: Deeds, Marriage, Births, Deaths, Orphan’s Court etc. However there was one Docket named “Lunatics and Drunkards.” I finally got up the courage to ask the Prothonotary what the Lunatics and Drunkards docket was for. It turned out to be the Divorce docket because at one time these were the only reasons for which you could seek a divorce.

Over the year I spent searching records there, other then perhaps one or two people for a brief minute or two I was the only one ever there besides the Prothonotary, and she spent most of her time in the outer office. Furthermore, I wonder how many other people ever visited the musty basement and looked through the Tax records and Naturalizations stored there. At the time I never thought to try photographing records and mostly just took notes as the cost of certified copies—seemed high to me at the time. [Laughs out loud]. The current cost of an certified copy of a birth record in California is $29! My how one’s perspective changes.

I did manage to get photos of cemeteries and gravestones. I also was given many old photographs including these two unidentified ones. I was able to later identify them. These are my husband’s 2nd great grandparents. And no one knew who they were. That is part of the joy of doing genealogy. We were later to visit Elizabeth’s grave in Chenango County, New York and discover the names of her parents. One thing leads to another.

Then in 1973, I moved back to California and saw a note posted at the local library about a genealogy group forming. I attended and was the youngest and founding member of this local group. I am one of only two surviving members of the original group. And she is still a friend. The group facilitated many friendships with mostly seniors and field trips to The National Archives Branch in San Bruno, Sutro Library and the California Genealogical Library and the Oakland LDS Family Search Library. These were the days of microfilm census records without indexes. I remember a visit to San Bruno and looking through the first published Census indexes and the Soundex Index to the 1880 census. I also remember snail mail letters to relatives, potential relatives contacted via the Genealogy Helper (defunct magazine for genealogy queries) and the ubiquitous SASE ( Self Addressed Stamped Envelope).

It was then I started in earnest on my family and began a long standing research association with my maternal aunt and paternal great aunt and a great uncle. I was active until the births of my children. Then genealogy sat on the back burner for a few years with just the occasional letter from my earlier advertisements in the Genealogical Helper. Over the years I became the recipient of photos, letters and other family memorabilia. And yet much was lost as people threw things out and relegated to the auction house. I wrote to my husband’s aunt asking for some keepsake of his grandmother. By the time I contacted them all had been disposed. Not a bible, rosary, photo, teacup had been saved to give to him or his sister. I do not know who , if anyone, retains the COLSON Family Bible and although there was a WHEATON Family Bible, it was never located. And I wrote letters and made phone calls to everyone in the family. I also photographer the MOSIER Family Bible. As genealogists and Family Historians we are obligated to share freely and broadly. So much is lost over time without a concerted effort,

I am so lucky to have had, so much help from older generations of the family when I was getting started and in some cases I preserved information that otherwise would have been lost. As I have written in Reformed Genealogists: Turning Stories Into Trees I have switched from collecting ancestors, to writing their stories. It has been pure delight to meet my Great Grandmother Mary Lulu (PADEN) MOSIER through her diary. To find my connection to her and her son my grandfather as kindred spirits, who enjoyed writing. The pursuit of genealogy has led to travel and friends around the globe. It has connected me in a way that has enhanced my understanding of ancient and more recent history. It has underscored the interconnectedness of people, experiences and life. I used to think if I had it to do over again I might have been better organized and taken better notes—but the truth is my regrets are few and my joy is great when I think of the places I have been and the people I have met, from casual connections to lifelong friends.

I have come to realize that my connections to my ancestors are quite personal and that they help me make sense of my life and the lives of those around me. Bringing their stories to life helps me discover more insight about my own and sharing them gives me connections that I need. My grandfather’s and great grandmother’s sorrows did not occur in a vacuum and their sensitivities I share…And what delighted them, delights me too: poetry, literature, flowers, trees, the way one feels when the sunlight is just so. As I have written before, the ancestors who left behind letters, diaries or stories are those I know best. But my great-grandmother Lucy Jane FRANKLIN’s colored pencil drawings of flowers and fruit

Lucy Jane FRANKLIN drawing, Identification by Milo MOSIER

or my grandmother Helen SHELDON’s Lenox plates tell me something about each of them as well. We can tell alot about what people value by the choices they make.

Lenox “Autumn”

The hardships, the Wars, the struggles are universal, and I like to think that they have paved the way for me to endure mine as well.

It is impossible for me to pick my favorite discoveries but some most noteworthy ones are the establishment of where my immigrant ancestors came from. The villages and towns in Sweden, Norway, France, Germany, England, Scotland etc have been particularly rewarding. Travelling to the villages in Bavaria, Germany where my fathers surname line came from was very rewarding. Although he and my grandfather had died before the discovery I know how much it would have meant to them and I brought hem with me in my heart as I visited this sacred places. And finally establishing Elizabeth Olson’s true origin as Aslôug Elifesdotter, in Vinje, Telemark, Norway after forty years of coming up empty. Visiting the cemetery in Little Compton, Rhode Island, the final resting place of Elizabeth (ALDEN) PABODIE my 9th great grandmother allegedly the first European women born in America. These and so much more.

Perhaps future blog posts I will write more. My hope for you is that reflecting on your own search brings you a deeper understanding of yourself, your family history and our shared humanity. My hopes for the future include discovering my enslaved ancestor’s name. Breaking down the origins of my brick wall ancestors John MERRITT and Margaret GEARY of New Jersey and Genesee County, New York. And having the time to research and complete more ancestors stories.

Kelly Wheaton © 2022 All Rights Reserved

2 Comments on “What Got you Started in Genealogy?: Writing Challenge”

  1. I feel very spoilt to have had so many records online when I first started 13 years ago. Though I can related to the family bible disappearing into the mists of time. I think we all come to genealogy in different ways at different points in our life (I was the “youngster” starting at 24).

    A wonderful read, I really enjoyed it!

    • Thank you for your comment. And whether we are 16 or 61 it’s all good. We come for different reasons and for the same. I like to think our ancestors are happy to be rediscovered.

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