I’ve Been Up a Tree Lately…

…A family tree, to be specific, which is why I haven’t published a Second Life article in about a week.

Remember Alex Haley’s Roots?  It was the literary, television and cultural event of a decade in many ways.  There is considerable debate about how accurate was the novelization of his search for the home of his ancestors in Africa; but it cannot be denied what the book and series set off — a massive upsurge in genealogical work among Americans of all races, not only African-American.  I myself became interested in it, and made a few short-lived attempts to trace my family, which fell apart when I hit the wall of how little information I had to use beyond the one surviving grandparent I had at the time.

Now, it’s become much simpler in some ways.  The Internet is a godsend for genealogy enthusiasts, allowing the pooling of research that was difficult in the past without making long trips to personally examine and photocopy records or photograph graves.  Now you can share the work of others who have been pounding away locally at the family.  I finally worked out a way to join ancestry.com, and I’ve spent about a week so far in the Real World, clicking on their iconic leaves to see where it takes me — mostly into things such as photocopied census records, but other sources of information that has been copiously copied and transcribed.  There are even family stories and photos, and contacts I’m starting to build up, especially concerning the step-branch of my family’s paternal side.  (Interestingly, I want to generate as big and bushy a tree as I can.  I must have some hobbit blood in me, wanting to discover all my cousins once removed to the ninth degree of relationship.)

It’s not always easy.  You can’t, of course, add everyone with the same last name; you need to compare records to make sure that the one you’re planning to add has the same birth date and location, lived in the right areas (if that information is available), and the same death date (if old enough).  Names, especially surnames, don’t stay consistent across the generations — remember how many names were changed by Ellis Island immigration officers; and it was easier for the person to accept their new identity, than fight the respelling or Anglicization of something polysyllabic and totally unpronounceable to an English-only-speaking functionary.  I’ve already run into a few doozies along the way.  And, of course, there’s still the chance that you’ll run completely out of deeper references for someone — no way in hell that you can find of tracing their mother and father, or siblings, further back without on-the-spot research.  Ancestry.com encourages you to network with others, and to offer your services as local researchers for someone looking for information.  Once in a while, though, you’ll hit a solid brick wall.

It has its rewards, though.  When I was a child of 4 or 5, the man I knew as my paternal grandfather was a wonderful person.  But it turned out, once I was old enough to understand, that he was my grandmother’s second husband; she had divorced my biological grandfather, who moved some 30 miles away and started another family…and apparently naming his new son the same as my father!  Believe me when I tell you that it confused people for years, and can confound the genealogists out there to this day.  So the good thing is that I know a lot more about the interrelationships in my family.  I’ve also, of course, discovered a few surprises that I never knew anything about when I was a kid.  Nothing that shatters my picture of my family at this point in time, but it explained many things such as silences and familial orders to not talk about certain relatives back then.  (There’s no feud like an old family feud.)

Ancestry.com isn’t cheap; you’re paying for access to a lot of records — in fact a s@%^house full of records and shared expertise.  A half-year membership for just U. S. records, forget the international, is about $80, paid semi-annually, of course.  There is a monthly rate, but the larger fees do save you.  Still, it can be fun to work on all this — enough to make me forget about Second Life for a time.  Ah, well; I needed a break, anyway.  The SL batteries are getting recharged with a spot of time away from the Grid.  I’ll probably be back in again in a day or two, so don’t forget about me!

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