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Why I Do Genealogy: an Answer

In my experience, the first question people usually ask when I say I do genealogy is "have you found out anything interesting?" I think they ask it because it is more polite than saying, "why?" with an incredulous and mystified tone in their voice. The answers I give vary quite a bit. The real answer, of course, is "yes, I have found lots of interesting things", but then how to explain the stories so that others find them interesting? If you do genealogy, you know that the thing that makes it such a good hobby is not making a list of names, or even all that you can learn about individuals, or the fact that you are never really "done". What makes genealogy such a great hobby is the puzzles to solve.

People leave paper trails throughout their lives. Now, we have drivers licenses, school records, passports, Social Security cards, birth certificates, tax records, newspaper articles - everything comes with a piece of paper on which we write the details of our lives. In the future, what will happen to all of these records? Some of them, inevitably, will be destroyed, either on purpose or by accident. Some of them will be left for future generations to comb through. Some will be organized, maybe even indexed in some format that is useful to future genealogists. Most will be difficult to find without a lot of knowledge of the family, the historical time period, and the types of records we were likely to have generated and where they are likely to be stored.

I first became interested in my family's history when I was about 12. It was around the time of my grandmother's death, a little after the last of my mother's great-aunts finally passed away. My mother was the only daughter of the only child of a family of five sisters who saved everything. She spent weeks going through papers, photos, clothes, toys, and who knows what else. I think, in retrospect, that the amount of stuff that we inherited was probably a little overwhelming. We have photographs showing the entire history of photography from about 1840 onwards (see the slide show). They start with daguerreotypes, move to ambrotypes and tintypes, and end up with a variety of paper prints. My mother went through and identified people with a magnifying glass and a family tree in front of her. It took forever. It was a constant checking and checking back to see if the time period and the location was right for this person to be that person. This is just a sampling of what we inherited. Everything else took time too.

My great-grandmother, Mildred Scott Hill, is the one who took on genealogy. Her line and her sisters' line branched back to the 1600s when I inherited it and began exploring. By high school, I had discovered that you could input your genealogy onto free software from the Church of Latter Day Saints. I had entered all the information I knew about my great-grandmother's line and begun creating pedigree charts in earnest by the time I had my drivers license. By college, I had begun exploring the census records and other family history resources at the LDS Family History Centers and the National Archives. In college, I learned HTML and created my first web site out of what I had learned about the family tree.

When I was in college and for a couple of years after college while I was in graduate school, I spent less time on genealogy. It is a time-intensive, solitary kind of hobby, and it wasn't one I had time for. I did a little bit of work on it here and there, especially when my job sent me to a conference in Salt Lake City and I could visit the main LDS library. That trip was incredibly instrumental in helping to solve several mysteries.

When we moved to New England in 2002, however, I suddenly had a lot more time for genealogy research. Jess was in medical school full-time, and the winters here are LONG! I got a subscription to Ancestry.com and began exploring in earnest. I updated my website and began to organize my files better. I made discoveries of new resources on-line and even traveled to Connecticut to the State Library. I began to understand the value of writing away for obituaries, estate papers, naturalization and vital records and started communicating with public, private, and university libraries, courts, town and city clerks, local genealogists, historical societies, and archivists. I corresponded with distant cousins who had information on the family that I didn't. I visited cemeteries and looked at cemetery records. I went back to the National Archives, armed with more information, and found resources that I hadn't known about before, including pension paperwork and passport applications. I visited local libraries to look at local histories and family genealogies. In short, I expanded my research to give a more in-depth look at my tree and to verify what I already knew.

Genealogy has now been a part of my life for a long time, but the resources that are available from your own computer keep expanding, and I am able to keep learning new things about my family tree through on-line resources and through the other sources listed above. There are very few "brick walls" that I've been unable to solve with a great deal of patience. Sometimes this means waiting until something new turns up, but often it simply means trying a new and different tack. Below are some of the stories about how I've solved some of my brick walls, and some of the interesting things I've turned up as I've researched the family tree.

Stories

Warren, Mildred, and Pat Hill

The Letter from "Mother" - a 20th century story of family scandal

Lieutenant Roger Plaisted & King Philip's War - information about Roger Plaisted, the conflict with the Indians called King Philip's War, and colonial Maine

Asa Hamlin's Father - a research story about the Hamlin family in Connecticut and Massachusetts

Rev. Wheelwright

Anne Marbury Hutchinson and the Rev. John Wheelwright - biographies of Hutchinson and Wheelwright and a history of the Antinomian controversy in the colonies

Historical Red Tape - a story about the Slinker family and their battles with the Civil War pension office

Dr. Emeline Aber - a biography of an early female physician

Hamlin Signature

The Search for the Descendants of Samuel and Permilia Scott - information about and transcriptions from this rare resource

James Marshel & Western Pennsylvania - a history of western PA and a biography of James Marshel


Additional interesting things can be seen at the Family Documents page.