Finding Our Roots

It’s back to Salt Lake City for a week long combination of research in the Family History library and the RootsTech convention. Both are massive resources, with the Family History Library combining five floors of space devoted specifically to family history research and the convention in the Salt Palace. Both of these venues are the largest of their kind and size in the world. 2016 attendance at RootsTech was 26,000! (fortunately not all at the same time).

My wife is the real family history researcher and I, the tag along, looking to learn more about our ancestors who, unthoughtfully, often left a less than great paper trail as they moved through life and locations. Discovering our ancestors is often not straightforward, with censuses that burned, wrongly stated (census takers didn’t necessarily have great spelling skills with foreign names), documents destroyed in wars, NPEs (non-parental events), mysterious name changes. In a decades long journey, we’ve encountered all of these.

Research takes both the paper based kind, though much is available in electronic format, and is supplemented by DNA research. DNA research led to the discovery of a second cousin once removed of whom I (nor I doubt my mother, who would have been a 1st cousin) were aware, and circling in on the real identity of a great grandfather who seems to have changed his name when he appears on the scene. DNA testing can provide confirmation of suspected familial ties (or the reverse), but without others’ contributions of knowledge of their family trees, can definitively not resolve all the missing links.

What motivated our ancestors to undertake some truly monumental life changes is not often apparent to us now and only through understanding the economic and political climates of the time can we begin to appreciate their motivation. On my father’s side, what motivated my 2nd great grandfather to move his family of nine children and his wife from a small village in southern Germany in the 1880’s , where his ancestors had been for at least 200+ years (and likely much longer) and make the voyage to Canada? They left everything they had for an uncertain future. One of those nine children (one of my great grandfathers) left Canada in 1890 and appeared in a small village in central Nebraska, some 1600 miles away. Couldn’t have been an easy journey, and why there?

We had the good fortune to be able to find and travel to the small village in Germany from which they departed so long ago. Though nothing like the journey they made, this small village is small enough it doesn’t have a train station. Two bus stops in this small village. The two churches (kirche in German) are close together. The Protestant church cemetery contains only graves within the last 100 years or so, but perhaps a third of them had my family surname on them. There are still living relatives there, but too far distant now. The half timbered City Hall , built in 1593, where my ancestors would have gone to pay taxes is one of the few ‘original’ buildings.

Part of life, especially in this geographic crossroads of central Europe was war, and the 30 Years War destroyed the principal record book of the time, the church record (Kirchenbuch) of baptisms, deaths and marriages. The church record book from the time, written in Latin, contains the first notations of my ancestors on this family line, starts again, but who knows how far back it went before the war? We scrolled thru this remarkable document on microfilm, amazed that it survived. Hundreds of years later, in another church record book (now on microfilm, written in German) on another continent of a church now disbanded, we found my great grandfather’s name as he first appeared in Sunday school in that small village in Nebraska, so very far away from his birthplace.

On other family lines, the research will continue to piece together documentation that traces a lineage on my mother’s side to a long serving Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgess in the Jamestown colony. We visited their ancestral home (Canterbury) in 2014 BB – before blog. The family had deep roots in Canterbury, with one serving as mayor of Canterbury. The church where they would have worshiped and cemetery where they had been buried, destroyed in WWII. All that remains is a plaque dedicated to the ancestor in the remnants of the church bell tower.

On one family line, my wife’s ancestoral research reaches back to Ireland, where responsibility for records rested with the church and fell victim to the same challenges of researching, burned and lost records, civil conflict. Irish family history research is made even more complex through their suppression by the English transplantation of Scots into Ireland in order to wrest control over the native Irish population. Economic hard times (potato famine) in the 1840’s resulted in Ireland losing perhaps a third of the population to famine and outward migration. In 2011, we visited Belfast, from where many Irish immigrants of the time departed. At the PRONI we were able to view an original document of a land lease by an English landlord, to someone who may have been one of her ancestors.

Other family lines seem like the scourge of every genealogy researcher (aka “brick wall”). Some ancestors seemingly appeared out of nowhere.

Two days of library time and then the conference begins.

Even if you have no compelling desire to research your family roots this far, if you have children and especially if your parents and grandparents are still living, share your family history before it gets buried and becomes someone else’s brick wall.

Take a DNA test ( Ancestry DNA, Family Tree DNA, 23 and Me), contribute to the growing pool of people who’ve tested and helped establish your or someone else’s link to the past. Who knows what or who you’ll find?

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