I wasn't a very good reader as a child and therefore not very voracious about it. But what child's imagination isn't captured when she arrives at her great aunt Mattie's house in the dark of night and is led into her conservative Mennonite home by lamplight, up a narrow winding staircase, to a hay tick bed warmed with bedwarmer, to sleep under her hand-stitched quilts, only to awaken for breakfast made on an ancient cast iron stove? When my mother suggested that together we keep a journal of our trip, and gather as much family history as we could--I was game. It didn't take much coaxing for her to drag me to cemeteries, old stone churches, or visiting old people I'd never met before to listen to her interview them. She sketched a family tree that lit up my curiosity for my ancestor's stories.
Back home from Pennsylvania, we often made the trek to the local genealogy research library. Those days were before internet google searches! I learned how to search indexes and scroll through microfilmed copies of original census as far back as the1850's. Once again, beautiful old handwriting and tidbits of information about these people captured my thoughts. Where fact was missing, my mind wanted to fill in the blanks to see their lives in my mind's eye. It's been like touching history to read registers in old family Bibles, decipher documents of indentured land contracts, wills, and even an old land deed written on sheepskin parchment for my immigrant ancestor.
Many of you know that a few of my favorite shows include "Who Do You Think You Are?" and "Finding Your Roots" with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. If you've ever been curious about how to search your own family roots, watching these shows will give you a basic start. They also give you an idea about how your family roots intersect with real historical events and how that may have shaped your family stories.
Everyone has a story, and each of our stories impacts the next generation. It's astounding how often significant events in the life of a family member are lost and becomes untold stories. I discovered on my husband's line that his 10 times great grandfather lived to be 100 years old and has a decorated memorial on his grave as a Revolutionary War veteran. Though he was buried in the same county my husband's family lived in for generations, not one living relative knew of his service, or where his grave was.
One story my mother gleaned from a mill owner in Lancaster, was that our immigrant ancestor came over from Switzerland with jewels hidden in his wooden chest, beneath a false bottom. But when the shipmaster measured his possessions, the discrepancy was found and the jewels were seized. It was said that he was imprisoned for his dishonesty. We may never prove the story's veracity. But it sure raises questions about how a humble Anabaptist farmer came to have jewels in his possession, and why he would have tried to smuggle them into the country. And what ever became of the jewels? Where did they come from? A castle? Stolen? Had the humble farmer once been something other than poor and unknown?
I recently discovered another interesting tidbit. One branch of my mother's Mennonite family immigrated to Lancaster County in 1710 to a small community called Pequa. This wasn't a secret. But what I didn't know was that another line from my father's Irish side immigrated to the exact small community in 1715. At the time, the Indians were still quite hostile and burned out many settler's homes. It was the Mennonite's who wanted to deal with them peaceably, and the Scots-Irish who disagreed.
Small world. What if these two branches of my great ancestor's paths crossed already over ten generations ago? What kind of a story would that have been?!
Where the paper trails run into a brick wall, DNA research can sometimes pick up a dead trail. My husband and I have both done our DNA tests for ancestry research on 23 & Me and found loads of interesting information there. Together the DNA and the paper trail research shows a map of what came before you. It's only a short jump to imagine what their lives might have been like, and a then my story brain takes off!
Are there mysteries in your family trees? Are there lost stories and rumors that snag your curiosity?
What would you ask your ancestors if you had the chance?
Blog post by Anne Love-
Writer of Historical Romance inspired by her family roots.Nurse Practitioner by day.Wife, mother, writer by night.Coffee drinker--any time.
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