Friday, March 11, 2016
Bound to Happen Eventually
After all that work on the family tree, adding names of descendants and then entering their spouses names as well—then repeating the process each time we push back another generation—at some point we're bound to run into unexpected connections.
I'm not necessarily thinking of those hey-I'm-related-to-someone-famous moments, right now—think close encounters of a more common variety. It's just that I'm seeing too many coincidental connections to surnames I know from other places, showing up in my family tree.
Take those frustrating DNA test matches. I administer not only the results for my own tests, but for my husband's, as well. Granted, when one is dealing with literally hundreds of surnames, they are bound to start swimming around in our memory, so I can excuse some confusion. But more than once, now, I've been working on my husband's results, and a match pops up for him with surnames from my family tree.
What gives, here? I mean, after all, we couldn't have come up with two more divergent family histories (at least for people living in the same country, that is). His immigrant family settled in Chicago; mine in New York. His DAR-material maternal line came from solid Catholics in colonial Maryland who moved further west through Pennsylvania to central Ohio. Mine was staunchly affiliated with the Old South. Yes, the Great Depression got my family roving the country in search of work, and World War II was the catalyst that got my husband's military family moving not only around this country, but to England and Japan, as well.
And yet, though they never met, my mother finished high school in a city not sixty miles from where my mother-in-law lived.
I watch as I piece together my extended tree—taking care to build it out to show all the descendants of specific ancestors I'm tracing—and see all sorts of potential close encounters of our families. Though my mother-in-law's family was ensconced in Perry County, Ohio, for generations—far, far from my southern family—I end up seeing one branch of my maternal tree move from coastal Virginia to the western side of the state, which then became an entirely different state (West Virginia), from which they then removed to, of all places, Perry County. Oh well, there are coal mines and oil fields in Perry County; maybe it felt just as much "home" as West Virginia had. It makes me wonder how many more generations it would take before parts of my family would intermarry with my husband's.
My husband's DNA tests keep insisting that he is connected to distant cousins sporting the surname Withers. Funny, we have a good friend by that very name. No relation, of course. Or maybe there is. Though he is California born and bred, come to find out his mother has a sister who lived in the very town where my mother's sister lived. Granted, it's a city of forty thousand people, so that shouldn't be surprising...until we realize that it's twenty five hundred miles from here. With chances like that, I wouldn't be surprised to discover that we're fourth cousins or something. I suppose anything is possible—and I'm getting more convinced of it, every day.
It boggles my mind to dwell on the possibility of connections. After all, we have the technology—and, as genealogists, the propensity—to ferret out familial connections. The farther back we can trace our ancestors, the more likely we are to bump into someone—online, at least, if not in person—who is a distant relation. I'm thinking, right now, of a friend in our local genealogical society, who told the story of contacting a Find A Grave volunteer about a memorial he had placed on the website for her great grandmother. When she emailed him to say she'd like to know if he had any more information on the woman, his response was, "Wait! That's my great grandmother! Who are you?"
I've met people online who turned out to be distant cousins, especially on my long-established Taliaferro line. That might seem like a slam-dunk, since there are so many of us out there just waiting to be found, after all these centuries of documentation. But it's not only the facilitation of online communication that helps us find these distant cousins; I met one right here in the city where I live.
Of course, it helps that we are both genealogists, and that is likely the catalyst for making such connections. But I'd also like to consider the possibility that we may see more of this sort of thing happening, as time goes on, for several reasons.
For one thing, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the drifting apart of extended families in modern times and the deepening desire to know more about our roots. While in real life, second cousins may have no knowledge of each other, as they learn how to research their own family history, they start reaching out to each other through online services, connecting and sharing what each one knows to piece together the family's lost saga.
Second, those online services, themselves, become catalysts in connecting distant cousins. Posting trees—whether on the Rootsweb of genealogy's yesteryear, or the free service at FamilySearch.org, or subscriber services such as Ancestry.com—gets the word out there like one giant billboard, advertising our desire for connection with others researching the same family lines. Social media—whether the 1990s style forums or Facebook groups currently in use—help aggregate us by surnames or by place names.
Third, there is such a flurry of information available to inspire newcomers to the field. Television programming brings heart-rending stories—whether about the famous or the commonplace—of finding one's roots, and with the addition of another series in the lineup this season, seems to indicate rising interest in the pursuit. Adoptees in particular have a wealth of volunteer support in encouraging them to attempt finding their birth families, including a new program set to air this spring.
And, of course, advertisements for services like DNA testing get people thinking maybe they can jump into this search, as well.
With all these people taking a long and serious look at their roots, considering their relationships with others, making connections with other researchers, it would not be a surprise to discover relationships we had no idea had existed. It's as if our pedigree charts have pulled a curtain aside to let us see the invisible connections between us.
Even if we can't figure it out yet—and I'm surely among those stuck on the results from my DNA tests—if we keep working at it, we'll likely trace some surprising connections, eventually. You know it's bound to happen.
Above: "View of Gloucester," undated watercolor by British landscape artist Thomas Hearne (1744-1817); courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.