Family Trees: How Far Does the Apple Really Fall?
by Marjorie Dorfman

I do not know who my grandfather was; I am much more concerned to know what his grandson will be.   
– Abraham Lincoln

Have you ever yearned to know the truth about where your ancestors really came from? Did they sail over to Ellis Island in steerage, survive the trip on slave ships, or arrive aboard the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock? Sometimes, what you do know can hurt you and it’s better to leave pedigrees the way you found them, alone and shrouded in mystery. Read on for some clues about who is really who and why.

Knowing where one comes from can be but isn’t necessarily a moot or philosophical issue, such as in the case of which came first, the chicken or the egg. Uncovering one’s roots and traditions and even that which sometimes was better off covered, (i.e., knowing whether you are either the chicken or the egg), should be a comfortable feeling, like slipping into a favorite armchair. Understanding one’s medical history reaps its own obvious advantages. Remember, however, that it is one’s own unique contribution to this planet that counts in the long run. Living out the good or bad accomplished by one’s ancestors can have disastrous consequences. Stepping and/or resting on one’s laurels can make one forget that hidden mines may lie underneath!

I once had a boss whose pedigree could only be classified as "Lace Curtain Irish." No chintz or polyester was he or any member of his immediate family. I will call him Mr. O’Hara, just in case some of his relatives may still be on this side of the sod and reading this article. So impressed was Mr. O’Hara with his ancestors who were supposedly related to St. Patrick and his grandfather who had caroused among the marble nymphs at San Simeon with William Randolph Hearst himself, that there seemed no bottom to his sense of family pride and tradition. I am not knocking these things. They have their place, like family silver, in the china cabinets of our lives. Inflated pride, however, is like a tire filled with too much air; its very nature predicts explosion.

I have my own little name for this particular variant of self-righteousness. I call it "Ness". It’s not a lush Loch in Scotland hiding some fearful, floating monster, nor does it chase Al Capone through the streets of 1930s Chicago. It is an undue pride about being born, and that’s is something no one ever asks to be! (Hence, Americanness, Hapsbourgness, Romanovness, Protestantness, Germanness, Irishness, Greekness, Hungarianness, Catholicness, Moslemness, Jewishness, Italianness. What a ness! Need I go on?)

Mr. O’Hara hired a genealogist to trace his family’s origins back to the very first family member to set foot on American soil. (We all suspected Calvin Klein.) He even ordered a scroll in a gilded frame and a family crest plaque, both of which he planned to hang in his state-of-the-art living room (until dead) for all adoring lower lives to admire from a respectful distance. He told everyone about it and how much it cost (500 dollars for the lineage and the same for the scroll. The plaque with the crest was on special, $250 if purchased on a rainy Saturday in March of a leap year.) When the genealogist finished his report, everyone in the office waited with bated breath for the brags and boasts about gilded, satin-clad ancestors. But Mr. O’Hara wasn’t talking and although everyone wondered why, no one dared to broach the subject first.

A day or two later, Mr. O’Hara came into my office and sat down squarely in front of me. His dour expression made me think that I had done something wrong, but I was mistaken. He was ready to talk about his family tree. It seems that the first O’Hara related directly to him came to America with many other Irish immigrants shortly after the Potato Famine of 1848. Soon thereafter, the young man was hung as a horse thief. It was later established that his only progeny, a son, grew up to be a cohort of the infamous James Brothers and was, in fact, the mastermind behind one of the biggest train robberies ever executed in the American West. He then rose and left my office, closing the door with some difficulty as his tail was caught somewhere between his legs.

The moral of the story is that if you want to trace your family tree proceed at your own risk and with the understanding that only you can prevent forest fires. You may not want to meet the skeleton that lives way in the back of your hall closet, but you must prepare yourself for the fact that he or she may want to meet YOU head-on! If after hearing all this, you still desire to discover the truth about your individual pedigree, at least learn how to go about it in the right manner. Find out how to research using public archives, the Internet, local history fairs and history groups, all of which can help you in tracking down your ancestry (as if it were a wild animal, if you will). Consider your quest a mystery puzzle in which you have one or a few of the necessary pieces. The whole matter reminds me of a Colombo episode in which each murder victim was killed because they had one piece of a puzzle that in total formed a complete photograph (Don’t kill anyone, but bear this in mind. You may need to buy a wrinkled raincoat as well, but hey, what the hell?)

Any detective story worth its salt has to have relevant clues to help solve the mystery. As an amateur genealogist, you will have to learn to gather clues which like rose petals, will fall as they may. The first step is to talk to as many family members as possible to obtain first-hand accounts, memories and stories, especially from elder generations. Nothing, however, should be taken at face value and all family "stories" must be investigated before they can be considered the truth. Clues abound within old correspondence, photos, heirlooms and other items you might find in trunks, attics, cellars and drawers. Try to establish exactly where the family came from, as this will play an important role in where to search for relevant records.

One of the most powerful tools available is the Internet. With easy to use guides, genealogical searching can become an enjoyable pastime instead of an endless frustrating quest for other birds of the same feather. It can offer, among other things, online surname data banks, which will search for your family name free of charge. It can also provide thousands of free genealogy-related mailing lists and tell you how to have them delivered to your e-mail account. (You’ll never be lonely for e-mail again!) Your knowledge can also be expanded by subscribing to the best genealogy discussion lists, newsletters and web zines and having them sent to your email account without charge. For further information, simply log in to The Family Tree Guide to Internet Genealogy.

Now you have the tools needed to uncover the naked, formally and formerly dressed truth about your family’s past. Remember that once you know, you can never not know again. (It’s kind of like Thomas Wolfe’s dilemma about not being able to come home again.) You will need courage to persevere, especially after the "bad" information starts flowing. Bear in mind that there can be positive results. Knowing your ancestors can reconnect you to your life, put flesh on those old forgotten bones and give new meaning to the past. If you need a pint of blood from a relative or a transplant of some organ, you may be able to count on new and unexpected sources of help. Watch out for operating costs though. The last I heard, tree surgeons were very, very expensive!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2003