Have you been watching episodes of Who Do You Think You Are on NBC? Watching as Sarah Jessica Parker, Emmitt Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Broderick, Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon, and Spike Lee traced their roots? I have. Over the past three years I have become obsessed with the genealogical pursuit, and was excited to learn the British television show had been imported to America. I wasn’t disappointed.
For me this pursuit isn’t about trying to trace my ancestry back to Charlemagne. If you have Western European ancestry, many experts say the mathematical odds are almost certain you have him as an ancestor. Even if this is true, I’m not too concerned about figuring out the exact path. However, I am interested in learning more about the lives of my immigrant ancestors, most of whom arrived in America in the 1800s and early 1900s – a few much earlier – and about the generations before them in the old countries. To put it in the words of a book I recall reading when I was in first grade, “What Did George Washington Have For Breakfast?”
[Historical trivia: There is no one who can claim George Washington as an ancestor. The "father of our country" had no children of his own. Some misuse the word 'ancestor' colloquially to mean any relative from an older generation. But this is a misuse, and should be avoided. If you tell me your grandfather's sister is also your ancestor, I will offer you my condolences. This has been known to happen. However, if it's not what you mean, please, do not besmirch the name of your grandfather, or that of his sister.]
What have I learned? For example: Back in 2007 when I began researching, the family knew my second great grandfather, Selig, left Poland in the late 1800s, settled in St. Louis, started real estate and laundry businesses, and that’s about it. We knew a lot about his descendants, as well as the names of a brother and sister who also came to America.
Now we know he arrived in 1890. I have a copy of the ship’s passenger manifest with him listed. I know from 1890 to 1900 he was a blacksmith in St. Louis. In 1898 he, and a business partner, filed a patent for an improvement to fire hydrants. (see drawing on left.) In 1901 and 1902 Selig became a Junk dealer with a store called The Western Junk Shop. It wasn’t until 1903 that he went into real estate. In addition to the seven children we knew about, he and his wife, Annie, had two sons who died as infants. He was also active in the community, helping to build schools and raise money for the poor. I’ve spoken with descendants of his sister, Tillie, and brother, Julius. My knowledge of Selig, and his family, has grown significantly.
There are interesting stories in everybody’s family tree. Brooke Shields may have been able to trace her ancestry back to a French king, but Matthew Broderick’s discoveries about his ancestors who fought in World War I and the Civil War were just as meaningful for him. I have ancestors who were Loyalists who fled America into Canada, and a generation or two later returned. I have a great grandfather who fought in the Hungarian army under the king, Franz Josef.
Future posts will look at how you, too, can research your ancestry. We will examine resources, both online, and offline. I will share some pitfalls you may wish to avoid. And we will look at ways to keep your research organized.
Feel free to ask questions, too. About genealogy in general, or your research in particular. Either in the comments, or send an email to jcnewmark at gmail dot com. If I can, I will try to answer your questions in future posts. Or at least suggest avenues of research you might pursue.
You can read more about my own research over the past few years at TransylvanianDutch.
Note: The logo for this article was created from Vincent Van Gogh’s Blossoming Almond Tree (1890).