Friday, June 14, 2019
The Privacy of Life
Searching for what turns out to be permanently missing records for either the Canadian or Irish baptisms of our Tully forebears points out one thing: how invisible people from previous generations seemed to be. With precious few documents kept that reached down to the level of the individual—tax records seeming to be the rare exception for those lucky enough to have ancestors who owned anything of value—that very fact bestowed upon such individuals the liberty to disappear from the scene, if they ever so wished. While we bemoan the lack of any indication of who Dennis Tully, husband of Margaret Hurley, might really have been, there seemed to be little question of a new arrival in any westward-expanding town who showed up, claiming to have that very name—or, perhaps, reinvented himself with an entirely fresh version of a name.
If a person were to try that same approach today—becoming a new person in a new town—there would be several impediments to such an attempt. Permission to operate a vehicle in order to drive to a new location would require a driver's license, upon which would be imprinted various details about that person's appearance, linked to a system which could enable tracking of that same specific driver, no matter where those travels led. Even worse, some governments might have already instituted other tracking devices, such as one in my home state, which would enable the "right" people to determine the location of the driver, just based on cameras which capture passing license plates on major roads—not to mention mobile phones with GPS tracking devices.
For those so concerned about their privacy that they shun any form of licensing for vehicle operation, air travel would likewise impede upon their wish to go undetected. Passports required for international travel, and photo identification for domestic air travel open the door to portability only for those willing to exchange such privileges for the momentary surrender of their privacy. And, should any weary travelers wish to lay their sweet heads down for rest, a hotel stay would likely also violate that desire for personal privacy—as would the use of a credit card to buy necessary supplies or meals during the journey.
Such a list could go on and on, of course—casting today's quest for genetic privacy in a more unrealistic light in comparison with other currently expanding realities—but it is not today's citizens whose privacy I am marveling over, but those of a previous century. Without the records to trace them back through the ages, the family history of our Denis Tully and his younger counterpart, the Dennis Tully of my husband's DNA match, will indeed remain obscured.
I'll have to concede loss—at least temporarily—in my attempt to identify just who Ontario resident Dennis Tully, born somewhere in Ireland around 1830, might have been. There are no records—at least that I can currently find—to demonstrate who his parents might have been. There may be circumstantial evidence, such as his DNA match to other known Tully descendants or clusters of similar surnames in more recent baptismal records still in existence, but until there is enough upon which to build a solid proof argument, I'll be left with endlessly continued search attempts.
Such a (temporary) defeat calls to mind another ancestor whose cloak of invisibility, granted by a less document-driven century, also enabled him to escape home and show up in another country—with a totally different name, as well. Just show up, claim a new identity, and voila! An ancestor reinvents himself. And 1800s American communities—especially the larger cities—seemed not to bat an eye. It was the anonymity of the hoi polloi.
I have such an example hiding in my own family tree: my paternal grandfather, the eastern European immigrant who somehow showed up in New York, then decided to change his identity to better match the signs of the times. No matter what the oldest members of my generation remember of him, there is simply not enough to cobble together a true identity of the man. More importantly, there isn't a shred of evidence to go by when trying to determine his origins. It was easy to slip into a country and claim one was someone one was not in an era of greater privacy. My grandfather was proof that that was possible. Even his own family didn't know his full story.
...until now, that is. Perhaps, in this era of restricted privacy—when an individual's every move can be told by a mesh of tracking devices—I'll now have the tools to figure out his origins. Perhaps. With the anomaly of one distant DNA match and some aptly-designed computer-assisted help, a pointing finger is poking through that shroud of anonymity. I may be able to crack that code of privacy, after all. Even in the face of far less documentation than our century has accustomed us to expect.