Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Like eyes out of focus, gazing through the gaps in a chain-link fence on a lazy summer afternoon, I sometimes stare at my own work on my family trees as if they were fuzzy mysteries. Names parade before me dreamily, generation after generation, documenting the coming of age of another set of descendants—and the projects I've worked on for well over three decades. Suddenly, my eyes snap into focus as I realize a name out of place—that one was supposed to be in the next generation—and I wonder, "What was I thinking?"
Have you ever done that? Gotten on a roll, entering lots of names in one family line, with discoveries spanning multiple generations—and then, after your marathon work session, realized you plugged that wife into the wrong generation? Of course, going back and cleaning up the mess seems more tedious than it was to make that mistake in the first place.
For the past several months now, I've been going over my decades-old research which has been languishing on an old computer and a just-as-old genealogical database program. Since I decided the best way to transfer all that work to my new research residence, online at Ancestry.com, was to enter each person's details one by one, I've been checking each detail as I go. Find a name in the old database, enter it in at Ancestry. Check for hints. Locate appropriate census records. If lucky, plug in verification for birth on those most recent records. If not, at least try to find death records for those who made it to the twentieth century.
And so on.
It's admittedly slow going. But I did manage to achieve one goal: I entered all the descendants of my mother-in-law's Gordon ancestors. Every descendant of immigrant John Gordon and his wife, Mary Helen Duke, from 1739 down to the present day—well, at least as many of them as I've been able to find—is now entered on my tree at Ancestry. Check that one off my list.
One good turn deserves another. Getting a task done feels so rewarding, it drives us to launch into another one. So I started tackling another surname in my mother-in-law's tree: Snider.
What was I thinking? Unlike Gordon—which, you've got to admit, is a relatively straightforward choice of surname, since there is really only one way to spell it—Snider presents predicaments from the start. The originating immigrant of this line—Nicholas—came over from Germany (or whatever nearby neighborhood got conveniently lumped in with that designation) with a surname spelled Schneider.
That didn't last too long. Early on, that spelling got switched to Sneider. That, however, was momentary. By the time the family made it to Perry County, Ohio, about the time the county was actually formed in 1818, theirs was a surname spelled with a straightforward approach: Snider. You know that was doomed to change, though. I've been treated with random switches between Snider and Snyder ever since.
No matter. I've been hot on the trail of these Schneider-Sneider-Snider-Snyders despite all the disguises their surname has taken on. They can't fool me.
And yet, as I review my work from the dark ages at the beginning of time, I find myself staring at all those names and entries and wondering: What was I thinking?
I've found one of those moments—probably hot on the trail, way past midnight while my husband was away, working graveyard shift—in which I didn't clean up my mess after plugging in a name into the wrong generation.
Oh great. Like that proverbial set of eyeballs staring dreamily outside the window through that chain-link fence, my out-of-focus gaze suddenly snaps back into reality and I realize what I mess I have on my hands to clean up.
You see, one mistake isn't as innocuous as it seems. One misplaced person on a tree is followed by a spouse, which means children are soon to follow. And then their descendants. Which ones to leave—and which ones to clean out? Was that Mary, wife of William senior? Or William junior? Did I add her parents' names? Or get confused and put the right parents in, but for the wrong daughter?
And then, the whole process has to be repeated. It's as if I hadn't done the work at all, in the first place. Double checking and cleaning can be so tedious—not just fixing things up, but wondering what the thought process was in making the mistake in the first place.
When it's all done, I'm left with that nagging thought: did I rout out all the mistakes? Or is there one still there, lurking behind the disguise of a wrong husband, once again?
If I don't find it now, you can be sure it will snap into focus somewhere down the line again.
Probably in another twenty years.
Above: "Calculating Table," woodcut from Gregor Reisch's 1503 Margarita Philosophica; courtesy Typ 520.03.736, Houghton Library, Harvard University via Wikipedia; in the public domain.