The Unordinary

Michael John Neill recently discussed Accurately Searching for my Ordinary Ancestors. A couple of his remarks were really spot-on, including this one:

The search for those records can take a lifetime, even in the era of the internet. It’s not just about the search for some obscure document that makes a connection or finding as much material as possible. Genealogy is not the accumulation of capital. It is about stitching documents together, fleshing out the unwritten clues in the records, and weaving the written and the unwritten together into a story that is based upon sound research, sound methodology and yet is engaging to the reader. The difficulty for those who strive to accurately document their heritage is that many of those who lived their lives outside the bright glow of fame do not always leave the amount of records that makes telling their story easy.

And, unfortunately, this one:

I hear people lamenting their “farming” ancestors and how their ancestors are all boring, etc.

Whoops! I’m a bit guilty there. Sometimes I do wish my ancestors were more interesting than plain ol’ white bread farmers because after a while, I miss the “learning curve.” I like learning new records and methodologies, and applying those to different research problems. Yes, I’m interested in accuracy and fleshing out the lives of my known ancestors, but it’s often the sheer challenge of research that keeps me going.

Once a puzzle solver, always a puzzle solver.

I’ve learned over the years that digging deeper into ancestors’ personalities and circumstances often provides exactly the challenge I desire. When I start to get bored, I ask myself, What makes this person or family unique? or I find another way to become engaged with the research.

Many times, serendipity plays a hand. While hunting for examples for a lecture on researching the poor, I came across a mention of a crime committed by a cousin whose family I had previously not been able to trace past the 1850 U.S. census. That one record renewed my interest in the family, and I’ve now been able to find, in other records, not only this cousin but a full sibling, a step-parent, and several half-siblings…all because I stumbled upon one court record in a focused search for something else entirely.

It wasn’t the fact that this cousin had committed a crime that drew me forward. It was the nature of the crime itself, and then the circumstances in which this cousin found herself. There was a reason this family was hard to find after 1850, and a reason why this particular ancestor became disconnected from her extended family. After a while, I began to identify with her, to feel compassion and a touch of pity, and those fueled my need to understand.

My research there isn’t finished, but when it is, I hope to publish it, in part to help others who are faced with the same research problems, but largely because I want this cousin’s voice to be heard. On the surface, she and her family were plain ol’ white bread farmers, but underneath that homogeneous exterior were real people whose circumstances set them apart from the ordinary. All I had to do to find the unordinary was look for it.

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