It's Wednesday morning. Do you know where your family's file is?
My good friend Dan Leeson - a genealogist with Eastern European roots - is also a retired IBM executive, a Mozart scholar, a clarinetist and author.
Some time ago he wrote a funny piece that should be required reading for all new family history researchers as well as those more experienced. With his permission, here it is. Make yourself comfortable and settle down:
When I began to took for my roots, I was absolutely convinced that my family's file was out there somewhere, that it contained ail of my history in all branches, and all I had to do was find out where it was located; that is, genealogy was the finding and digesting of a complete, already-created file that was all about my family.
I envisioned armies of government workers (Department of Commerce?) preparing my file as I headed towards and through puberty, and now that I was old enough to have this intense interest in where I came from, my file was there waiting for me. It would inform me of my great-grandmother's maiden name (which my mother never really knew), and the exact spelling of the original family name of my grandfather (which my father never really knew), and answer those thousand questions that would enable me to know who I was and how did I get here. Best of all, this file would document in considerable detail, the travels of all of my ancestors from the year one, maybe even earlier. Who's got my file, please? Would whoever has it please notify me by Tuesday next? Would that inconvenience anyone?
So I started my genealogical quest by presuming the existence of such a file and this made my search very easy. I would keep asking where all my data was and never have to bother with actually researching it. I went to the New York Public Library and asked if they had my file. They didn't.Then I tried several other prestigious libraries and archives in the New York City area. Same result. Perhaps I'm asking the wrong questions. It's kind of like trying to locate a misplaced library book.
Of course, there was no Internet then, only mail. So I sent out hundreds of letters asking everyone if they knew where my file was. It would be easy to spot. My great-grandmother died in Poland sometime after World War I, and I think my grandfather was from Sidzun, Lithuania, or maybe it was Radviliskis: I'm not sure. But he had red hair, of that I am certain. All good data, of course; no silly family stories and other stuff like dates and precise locations. Just solid evidence like red hair. But despite this wealth of heavy-duty documentation, no one seemed to have my file. Did the Department of Commerce spend all that taxpayer money to make a file on me only to have it lost by some careless person?
One day, in the New York Public, I met a woman who was doing her genealogy and wow, did she have a file! It was a foot thick and wandered through the Middle Ages with the same ease that I wandered through a meal at my favorite French restaurant. So I asked her where she found her file (mine would be bigger and more impressive of course, because I'm sure that there was royalty in my family) and she looked at me as if I had asked her where to find a size 19 bustle frame.
"What on earth are you talking about?" she said graciously, full of the warmth and charm of one who likes neither to be disturbed nor strangers who interrupt her work. "This file has taken me 23 years to put together. Every scrap of paper in it was lovingly found by me. What is it with you? Do you really think that someone has done your genealogy for you? You have to do it yourself, you dweeb!"
I smiled condescendingly at her jolly but intemperate outburst. Clearly she did not understand the problem. "Of course," I said. "I know that I have to do it, and that is exactly what I .aw trying to dr. By locating my fife, I am doing my genealogy. When I find it, I will then be in a state of having done my genealogy. It will all be there, and my genealogy will have been both found and completed by the act of finding the file. "Then I can go on to something else in life, like collecting stamps, shoeing horses, or learning how to make those little roses of red butter-cream icing that go on birthday cakes."
"I am being accosted by a crazy!" screamed the lady, causing armies of librarians to say 'Ssshhhh.' "I have the misfortune to be in the presence of a class A, gold-medal, deranged mind. There is no file on you, Mr. Dopey-In-The-Head. All there is about you and your family in the world consists of little remnants of what your ancestors left as they passed through this mortal coil." (Now that lady had a flair for language. "Mortal coil" is hot stuff. I must use that some time.)
"What do you mean?" I said.
"You imbecile, you! Let me explain in short words, since you seem to have trouble absorbing abstract ideas. Four hundred years ago, one of your ancestors, a tinsmith by trade, made a pot that he sold in the central market in Erfurt, Germany, at a price that was considered by the buyer to be way too high. Your ancestor was sued by the buyer and taken to court. The court record (Volume 5,24, page 361, subfolio CIX, city of Erfurt, now located in the federal archives in Berlin) recorded his name, the name of the suing party, and the price of the pot as well as the fact that your ancestor was found guilty of price gouging and spent one month in the slammer."
"I don't want that information," I said. "I want his birth certificate, full name, name of wife (including maiden name), date of death, death certificate, plus the names of all his children as well as the full names of all their spouses. That's what I want. What do I care about a lawsuit in 1595? And besides, no one in my family was ever in, as you indelicately put it, 'the slammer'! I'll have you know that we are all descended from kings and dukes and stuff like that."
"You better start learning to love the kind of information that is out there," said my new-found friend, "because that is what you will get if you are very fortunate. Besides, birth and death certificates are a relatively new invention."
"How do you know all this," I countered, "and, how did my ancestor get to Erfurt if he wasn't born there? My family came from Lithuania and Poland."
"No, they didn't." my friend replied. "Nobody came from Lithuania and Poland. They came from somewhere else until they eventually went to Lithuania and Poland and ultimately found residences in these countries. And how I know this is because it happened to one of my ancestors, and I was telling you this story in the hope of getting through that thick skull of yours. Finding the court records about that pot is what genealogy is all about. And finding out how your ancestor got to Erfurt in the first place is also what genealogy is all about. It took me four years to find that information, and the day I did, I bought myself a bottle of LaFitte-Rothschild, 1929, and savored it with a Big Mac, some large fries, and, for dessert, a cherry Jello accompanied by an entire box of Twinkles, the kind with the gooey stuff inside."
Ever since that fateful encounter in the New York Public, I have been looking for those little fragments that my ancestors left in this world as they passed through this mortal coil. (See! I got it in.)
On good days, I find nothing. On bad days, I find contradictory information or data that shows unequivocally that I have been slogging through the wrong family for three months. On very bad days, the microfilm reader at the local Mormon stake is busted beyond human comprehension, the part needed to fix it is in Pakistan, and seated next to me at the only functioning reader is a researcher who asks me if I ever considered the advantages of both a good insurance program and becoming a tree worshipper.
Now this whole story is being written for the sole purpose of trying to help all the new genealogical researchers to get their expectations set at the right level. The rules are these:
- There is no file. The Department of Commerce never heard of you. They are doing the other person's file.
- Once in a while you'll find a cousin who has genealogical data, but it is probably all wrong,
your name will be misspelled, and s/he will have you identified both as illegitimate and an adoptee, which may give you and your descendants some trouble for the next seven generations depending on how you handle illegitimacy.
- If it is out there, you have two problems: (I) identifying 'there' and, (2) finding it, whatever it is.
When you do find it, it will probably be a report of the death by hanging of your direct paternal 5-times grandfather, who was convicted of being either a horse thief, a bigamist, or an ax murderer. Now that's genealogical success!
- If you don't know much, other genealogical researchers will help you for about one hour and then drop you like a hot potato when they find out you are not a relation. However, during the time that they do assist you, you are obliged, by international protocol, and genealogical convention, to feed them.
- The joy of genealogy - it's up there on the bookstore shelf next to The Joy of Sex - is as much in the search as in the find.
Oh, the wonderful things you will learn about living in Turkey in 1542; life in Kentucky in 1875; the main population consequences of the Irish potato famine; population shifts in the American census of 1900 as caused by poverty in Sicily; the exquisite scholarship of my ancestors in Lithuania; and, a good recipe for chopped liver.
So those of you out there who are posting inquiries in magazines and on the Internet such as, "How do I find out about my great-uncle's nephew's sister's son, Louie Bzptflk, who had blue eyes and a wart on his nose?" keep posting.
But it is very unlikely that anyone will respond to tell you that Louie Bzptflk became the leading brain surgeon in Omaha, c1913, where he did the first Nebraskan brain transplant. And the reason why no one will tell you this story is because it is buried in Omaha newspapers, all of which you are going to have to research, alone, in a dusty corner of the Omaha public library as penance for not realizing what a terrific history your family has.
I conclude by ponderously stating the obvious. A vast body of literature has grown up about "How to do your genealogy," and even specialized subsets, such as "How to do your German genealogy." It can be even more precise: "How to do your Bavarian-German genealogy." The volume of this helpful literature is now so large that becoming acquainted with it is almost more forbidding than doing your genealogy. The preparation and publication of helpful genealogical literature is a cottage industry in America and elsewhere. Little firms in Arkansas and Utah are cranking out brochures that are sold for very modest amounts about cemeteries in Cape May County, New Jersey, or Minnesota Swedish Immigration Statistics (which may or may not help you much).
Suppose you pose to yourself a question as simple as, "How do I get Louie Bzptflk's death certificate from Omaha?" Eventually you will learn that there are several books that deal with obtaining vital records from every corner of America. Most of them work fine. Some don't. Therefore, doing your genealogy partly involves devoting the time needed to become familiar with the basic genealogical "How" and "Where to Write" literature.
Genealogy is, if I may paraphrase Mark Twain, 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, though the percentages may be somewhat inaccurate. As much as I would like to find someone to do the 99% part, I always wind up doing it myself, and in the long run, I am happy that I did do it, because the voyage was as fascinating as its conclusion.
Now I must go. There is a microfilm waiting for me in the Mormon stake of San Jose that deals with the community of Erfurt in the 16th century. Maybe there will be something in it about pot-makers. Probably not. But I am going to look anyway. And who knows ... ?
Oh yes, does anyone out there know where my file is?
Dan's timeless piece has been reprinted in many genealogical journals including the Forum (Federation of Genealogical Societies), Genealogija (Lithuanian-American Genealogy Society), Bulletin (Polish Genealogical Society of America), Pointers (American Journal of Italian Genealogy) and others.
Enjoy it, and do let me know if you liked it.