Monday, February 13, 2012

The most fulfilling research I've ever done

A few months ago, my grandmother, after seeing the records I'd found of her grandparents and great-grandparents, asked if I would be able to find out anything about a high school friend she'd lost touch with. They'd been best friends - Anna Miami* was in my grandmother's wedding - but had had a falling out, and between moves on both sides, had fallen completely out of touch. Her maiden name was unusual, but her married name may as well have been Smith, it was so common. My grandmother had looked for her for years with no luck. She'd asked my aunts and uncles to look for her. She'd called random Anna Smiths in the phone book - but she had never been able to get in touch with her.

 I told her I'd try, but I wasn't sure where to start.

In actuality, I did know where I'd start, but I wasn't about to tell Grandma that the first place I'd look would be the SSDI. Though my grandmother is in good health, she's in her 80s, and undoubtedly many of the people she went to high school with have since passed away. I did find one possible entry on the SSDI, and I ordered her SS-5 to see if the maiden name was correct. (By the time it arrived, I already knew it was wrong.)

I wasn't really sure where to turn to find a living person. I tried Google with no luck, searched the U.S. Public Records Index on Ancestry (which only tells you enough to confirm what you already know, really). No dice. Eventually I decided to try the only way I actually have any experience finding people: genealogical records. I didn't think I'd be successful, but maybe if I could find Anna Miami on the 1930 Census, I'd be able to figure something out. Learn her parents' names and find their obituaries, learn her brothers' names and be able to Google them, who would have kept their more unusual birth surname.

I got even luckier than that. I found her in 1930, and the record was attached to someone's tree. From the looks of the tree, she was an in-law, and I had no idea whether the tree owner would know anything about her current whereabouts. There are certainly people in collateral lines attached to my online tree who may or may not be alive, and whom I would have no way of contacting if they were. I contacted the tree owner, and two days later got an excited phone call from my husband at work (our Ancestry messages go to his e-mail address). The tree owner had called his mom, who still kept in touch with Anna; the mom called Anna, who was thrilled to hear that my grandmother was looking for her; and we had an message with her address and phone number that said Anna was "overjoyed" that Grandma was trying to find her.

I had started my search really afraid that I would have to call my grandmother and let her know that Anna Miami had been dead for years. Instead, I got to call her up and tell her Anna was thrilled to hear from her, and give her Anna's phone number.

I never expected that the most fulfilling, emotional "genealogy" discovery I'd ever make would be about someone I have absolutely no relationship to, but I've never been prouder of something I've found.

(An additional perk is that I've gained some legitimacy in the eyes of all the relatives who roll their eyes at my genealogical interests - all the research into dead people gave me the skills to finally do something "useful.")

*names changed to protect the living.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Do I want zombies in my family tree?

One day recently, as I sat reading a report at work, trying to ignore some genealogical thoughts in the back of my mind, I was hit with a wave of emotion I never expected. It was frustration, mixed with despair, but mostly, it was mourning. If I were to put it into words, it would resemble “This is pointless! Genealogy doesn’t work. No matter how hard you research, no matter how many details you learn, you’ll never succeed. You can’t bring them back.”

I was shocked. What was I thinking? I am a sane, rational person. I am not trying to bring my ancestors back from the dead. But for a minute there – and the feeling lingered – I was grieving my ancestors, wishing for them back, and not just so I could ask them questions to satisfy my curiosity.

I’m sure everyone who has ever lost someone is familiar with being hit, out of the blue, years after the fact, by the awful finality – the awful eternity - of the death of a loved one. We know they’re never coming back, but once in a while, you know they’re never coming back. 

And that, briefly, unexpectedly, was how I felt about ancestors I'd never met, people I knew only from censuses and vital records - that I wanted them "back" in my life, that I was working, desperately, to bring them back from beyond the veil. And that, of course, it was an entirely futile enterprise. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Picture of my 3x Greatgrandfather

This is my great-great-great-grandfather, Martin Gillan:

(I want to say he's the family patriarch, from whom are descended all of the Gillans I've encountered since I started doing research, but that's not entirely accurate. I was once contacted by a descendant of his brother, so really, I have to find Martin's parents - my 4x great-grandparents - to find the ancestors from whom we all descend.) 

A few months ago, I was contacted by a second cousin thrice removed who sent me this photograph of his great-grandfather, my 3x great-grandfather Martin Gillan. He was born c. 1825, but lived, according to his obituary, an astounding 104 years, and died in 1929, which is why I'm lucky enough to have a photograph of him. 

My cousin told me that it was a photograph of "Daddy Moore," which left me a little nervous that we had a case of misidentification. I forwarded the picture to our mutual cousin Mary, who never knew Martin Gillan but grew up in the same town he had lived in and knew a little more about him. Probably sounding like an American boob who wouldn't recognize a word of Irish if it bit me on the nose, I asked her about the name "Daddy Moore." Why would they be calling this guy Moore if his name is Gillan? Patiently, Mary explained to me that Martin Gillan was known by his many grandchildren as Dada Mór, Irish for Granddad. A great family picture and an Irish language lesson all at once - now that's a success!

Friday, February 3, 2012

What's "ancient history" in genealogy?

Earlier this week, I was on the verge of issuing a research challenge. I was curious about the story behind a 1940s newspaper mention of a collateral family line, but didn't have the slightest idea how to go about researching it. I didn't know exactly what had happened or where it had happened. How could I even begin looking? So I started writing a post to put it out to the genealogy community. I was going to ask for advice, and hey, if anyone wanted to do the research themselves, I wouldn't say no. But as I began to describe the research I had done thus far, I realized I wasn't quite sure. I had searched Fulton History, but had I searched only the Brooklyn Eagle, or I had I searched the entire site?

I don't know whether I had failed to search the entire database when I first investigated, or whether I had done so, but the Long Island Star-Journal hadn't yet been added. One way or another, I found the article I was looking for after mere moments of searching. It answered some questions, but raised some more. And it provided enough information that I no longer feel comfortable "putting it out there." As of the when the article I found went to print, "police were investigating," and though the article doesn't say it, the likely conclusions seem to be tragic accident or murder-suicide.

The incident in question took place in 1947, and although the deceased did not, to my knowledge leave any direct descendants, they had younger siblings who could still be alive. I imagine that every genealogist with a blog, or a book, or any platform on which to publicize his research at some point has to struggle with drawing the line that separates "ancient history" from "the not-so-distant past." Is it when the people involved are still living? (Among the letters written to my husband's great-grandfather throughout his life are some from the 1950s whose author, we have recently learned, is still living. That obviously very much impacts a decision on whether or not to post them.) What about when the people who knew the people involved are still living? While sensitivity is necessary here, it's really a rather stringent requirement. Should I not write about my great-great-grandmother (1868-1941) because her grandchildren remember her well? My great-uncles wouldn't demand that, and I've based my decisions off of their wishes . . . but she has other descendants I'm not in contact with.

There's no one alive today who remembers, for example, my great-great-great-grandfather, Mathew Madigan (1840-1892). I can write anything I want about him (anything true, that is). But when I posted about his grandson's death a few years ago, I quickly had second thoughts, and took down all specifics.

Where do you draw the line?