Tuesday, January 15, 2019

"A Northerner Walks Into
a Class on Southern Research . . ."

Sound like the beginning of a joke?

I'm feeling somewhat disoriented, surrounded by so many southern accents and roots reaching south of the Mason-Dixon line. I may have grandparents who claimed kin in places like Tennessee and Florida, but they moved up north before my mom was ever born. All my life, I knew nothing of a non-snow winter existence (well, at least until I moved to California), having been born and raised in the New York City metro area. I never even set foot in either of those two states of my family heritage until I was well into adulthood. The closest anyone in my immediate family came to replicating a southern lifestyle was that momentary lapse into "southern hospitality" when, on family visits, my aunt would insist we take second helpings at dinner.

But here I am, sitting in class at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, listening to research luminaries such as J. Mark Lowe and Anne Gillespie Mitchell speak of the ins and outs of researching this unique region.

They even talk different. Is there a separate lexicon for folks who speak Southern?

Mark Lowe exposed us to the concept, "Listen to the mule." Perhaps, if you are southern, yourself, this phrase is no stranger to you. I, northerner that I am, had some learnin' to do. When the tale was told, though, I learned by osmosis just what the zeitgeist behind that phrase really meant: you can learn something from the one who is doing all the work; you just have to know how to listen.

I'm listening.

Equipped with maps—soil maps, even—we examined migration possibilities for our southern farming ancestors. We talked deed maps, county line change maps, tax- and business-related maps.

And websites. Oh, the resources.

I couldn't wait until class was over...so I didn't. Had to try my hand right away at finding stuff as the information was unfolding. With Anne Gillespie Mitchell's sessions, I discovered some of the geographic locations she was focusing on were in the vicinity of ancestors in my family's lines, snatched up those website URLs she shared and put them through their paces. And yes, there is light behind some of those impenetrable brick walls.

As far removed from southern life as I may seem to be, it's not as far from that history as you think. I'm not as "northern" as I may think I am. You see, like so many of us, I have a dark southern secret, something I wish were never there, but undeniably, historically, was. Perhaps that is why it was so much easier to claim an adopted northern identity, and to ignore that centuries-long detour from my Mayflower kin to my Virginia, Tennessee and Florida heritage.

As artfully as LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson put it in last night's plenary session, though, "We're All in the Same Boat Now!" In her call for us to see genealogy as a "force for social change," she urged us to be part of the solution by striving for accuracy in how we represent the historical records touching our family's stories—to expand our concept of the ethical obligation to share the full story of our past, especially through those dark times we'd rather smudge out even further. The parts of our story that we'd rather forget may, shared, become the key to help someone else find the first inkling of their own family's history. 


  1. Well, you know Florida doesn't count. It might be in the South geographically but certainly not in sensibility. I didn't appreciate how different researching in the South is from researching in the North until I worked on a DAR application for a New Hampshire patriot. Birth, marriage, death records for every generation, nice and tidy. No burned counties there!

    1. It is a different world, isn't it, Wendy?! Although I'd say Florida is much more likely to resemble the rest of the south than New Hampshire.


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