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Your Roots Are Showing


Be careful what you wish for when researching your family history


I feel that I have sufficient credibility to comment on the American obsession with their family trees, their “roots” if you will.


I was at the National Archives in 1977 and witnessed the seismic explosion of interest in family history research.


Alex Haley, an award-winning biographer and columnist famous for his interviews in Playboy magazine, visited the National Archives in 1964 to begin a search for his African-American ancestors. His 13-year journey eventually resulted in the 1976 publication of the novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” and one year later a record-breaking TV mini-series that ignited a national interest in genealogy. Over 130 million viewers tuned in each week to follow the progress of Kunta Kinte, and his descendants. The word of mouth was (as we say today) viral.


Some of Haley’s research was later challenged and “Roots” is no longer thought to be built on a foundation of historical scholarship. Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr of Harvard University has called Haley’s writing a “work of the imagination.”


Nevertheless, the national reaction was noteworthy and resulted in a stampede to  the microfilm reading rooms of the National Archives where the public could spool through records of the U.S. Census, Military Service, and Pensions of Revolutionary War, American Civil War, and WWI veterans. We never had experienced lines of people waiting to use the microfilm readers in Washington DC. In 1977, it became a daily routine.


I remember that Connie Potter, one of our Archives experts who spent her career instructing and assisting the public in genealogical research, dreaded the Friday after Thanksgiving. Today it has been captured by the retail world and labelled Black Friday.


Connie (whose first name is Constance and who laughed with me for years that, had we married, she would have spent her life as Constance Constance), said that families would reminisce about family history over the Thanksgiving meal, and head to the National Archives the next day to research their “roots”. They were often disappointed to discover that the search would not be a one-hour journey, but could take years as it had for Alex Haley.


My only family context for genealogy had been the quest of my Aunt Della to become a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). To become a member, “any woman 18 years or older (must) prove lineal, bloodline descendance from an ancestor who aided in achieving American independence.”


Aunt Della had hired a professional genealogist who researched our Skillman family lineage all the way back to the 17th century, and in the process discovered Thomas Skillman (1736-1814), her 4th great grandfather (and my 5th), who served as a lieutenant in Captain John Titus’s Company of Colonel Van Brunt’s Regiment, NY Militia, Kings County (Brooklyn). So, bingo, she was in.


By the way, we also know that Thomas Skillman was taken prisoner on September 15, 1776, during the Battle of Long Island and held in a house near Kips Bay, now a neighborhood in Manhattan, NY. His father-in-law Francis Titus became a Tory and interceded on his behalf. Thomas was released but was required to take Lord Howe’s loyalty oath before his return to Brunswick, NJ.


In addition to being a good (we hope) genealogist, the person who my aunt paid for the research was a decent calligrapher and the resulting document is a work of art. I am now the owner and remember asking my dad why one branch of the family line mysteriously ends with some unexplained dashes. He told me that the researcher had found his way into some “troubling discoveries” and with no further detail, I have always assumed that I have some African American relatives. A bit much for my aunt to grasp (or pay for) in the 1960’s.


Back in the day, we always made sport of the “little old ladies in tennis shoes” who represented the majority of our Archives “genie” community prior to 1977. They were trying to trace their lineage back to Charlamagne or to some other rich or famous relative. Disappointment followed them everywhere and they were a dour lot.


They were, however, quite refined and civil when compared to the sea of impatient amateur genies who swept in during the post Roots onslaught. As I recall, there was at least one fist fight over a microfilm reader, but my favorite was a woman who bit another woman in a fracas over our limited supply of microfilm rolls. Public service would be way easier if you didn’t have to deal with the public. We are a wild and unpredictable species.


One of the exiting and festive days for the National Archives and the genealogical world is the public release of the decennial U.S. Census. Mandated by Article I of the U.S. Constitution, the first census after the American Revolution was taken in 1790 under Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and there have been 23 federal censuses since that time.


Under the “72 Year Rule” the census and all related data may be released to the public 72 years after the census was taken. This was thought to be an average lifespan when the rule was put in place and reflected the tipping point between the public’s right to know and the likelihood that most of the information would be about people already deceased. The sensitivity reflects the fact that the census is no longer just a count. Over the years, the economists and statisticians in the Census Bureau have recommended and the Congress has approved the addition of questions about family relationships, race, income, occupation, and birthplace, making the data a treasure trove for genealogical research.


As the custodian of the records, the National Archives makes the official release and our Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters is ground zero. It is equivalent to the fanfare surrounding the annual release of Beaujolais Nouveau or the appearance of Punxsutawney Phil, with the added excitement of an event that only happens every ten years. Back in the day, a very large microfilm order for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, full sets of film for our Regional Archives, and the physical preparation of headquarters for the onslaught, were all part of the planning. I was there for the release of the 1920 Census in April of 1992 and the 1930 Census in 2002. I saw the day from the perspective of the Policy Director, responsible for all of the procedures surrounding the release, and later as the head of the Congressional and Public Affairs shop, pumping out press releases and keeping key members of congress informed.


In 1992, my office was on the 4th floor, right down the hall from the microfilm reading room and our genealogical research office. I didn’t have far to walk to observe the excitement of that release day. Given the limited waiting area in front of the reading room, folks were held in the Pennsylvania Avenue Lobby and allowed to come in groups as readers became available. They were like excited kids coming to visit Santa as they bounded off the elevators. Memorable.


So, with all of that background, you’d have thought that doing genealogy would have come naturally to me. Coming from a family of story tellers, I did know a lot about my roots without cranking one roll of microfilm through a reader. But given my experience with at least the most vocal and challenging genealogists, you might say that I had an aversion to the craft. I was not one of THOSE people.


But when you retire and have a love for all things historical, you are a natural target for the marketing department of Ancestry.com. Unlike the old days, the accessibility of records has become a reality in our modern world and the ease of on-line genie research, a search for your roots while clad in pj’s if you will, was quite attractive.


So, before I knew it, I was not only subscribing to the US version of Ancestry, but also the international access option, and various newspaper obit websites. I was in, hook, line, and sinker.


It is true what they say about the addictive nature of the search for family members. Dates, stories, photos, names, places all flow onto the branches of your blossoming tree and you suddenly realize that it is 11:45pm and you’ve blown right past bedtime. The little ancestry bots throw in hints, attaboys, and delectable crumbs to encourage you down the path.


Over the course of the last 10 years I have found that there are three kinds of genealogy: careful, lazy, and prideful.


Careful genealogy means starting with family interviews and accumulated lore and corroborating the results relying exclusively on primary sources (read original records). Looking at census records, birth, death, and marriage registers, city directories, and military service records is the careful and accurate way to approach the task. Yes, accurate, but slow.


The lazy path offered to you on a silver platter by Ancestry.com comes from assuming that the Ancestry Public Member Trees that overlap your search are accurate and have been created from primary sources. What I have found is that ofttimes these trees have just been copied from other public trees and are totally bogus. They could have been copied scores of times resulting in a tree that is suffering from Annosus Root Rot, Fusiform Rust, and Laurel Wilt to such a degree that there is only one solution. Cut it down, chop it up, and carefully put it in the fireplace.


One human characteristic that will foster this mistake is hubris. If we hit a genealogical fork in the road with one route offering a tree filled with larceny, insanity, or mediocrity and another offering knights of the round table, colorful crests, and our very own tartan pattern, we are drawn down the heraldic path like lambs to the chop house. It is natural.


Prideful genealogy creates fictional results. Watch out for the guy at the pub who tells you that he is related to King Charles III. He is either the victim of a prideful genealogist, a liar, or has been at the pub since it opened. But buy him a pint and get his name just in case he's telling the truth.


One branch of my family tree is occupied by the McKenzies of Maryland. When you trace them back through history, they offer one such beguiling fork in the road. One avenue leads to an ancestor who arrived in St. Mary’s City after a circuitous route from Scotland. His granddaddy had the dramatic oil portrait, the officer’s uniform, the coat of arms, and yes, the tartan. The other avenue, let’s call it Tobacco Road, leads to indentured servants, leg irons, and horse thievery. There is a virtual traffic jam of amateur genies on route one, but no need for speed enforcement on route two (the one, sadly from which I descend).


“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.”


Hey Hamlet, that’s not the right grave, and we might not even be in the right cemetery pal. I used some Member’s Public Tree, and I thought it would be cool to be in this play, but your last name’s Schwartz and these don’t look like our people.


Well, I still enjoy the occasional Ancestry "hint" that leads to a good primary source and a new discovery. The recent release of the 1950 census was fun and afforded me a virtual walk down Thackery Avenue in Catonsville, Maryland and the recognition of the names of neighbors who I haven’t thought about for years. Having passed the statute of limitations for some of the crimes that I committed there, it was a relaxed stroll.


One final comment on the hobby of genealogy.


Ancestry.com did a television commercial a few years ago featuring some lonely guy who had looked up his family tree and then invited all of his long lost cousins to Thanksgiving dinner. The image of him opening his front door and welcoming a sea of strangers still is occupying rent-free space in my brain. It gives me the creeps.


Now while Leonard Bernstein could be in that crowd, so could Jeffrey Dahmer. Just because these people share a smidgen of DNA with me, why the hell should I let them in my house? When a guest asks me to pass the fava beans and that nice Chianti, I want to be sure I have nothing to fear.


The poor census taker in Silence of the Lambs should have stuck to primary sources.

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