Thursday, January 31, 2008

Worlds apart, but part of the same family: pooling information with the gene pool

At home, I can talk genealogy with my grandmother and my father. That's about it. They're the only ones who get my excitement over some new genealogical discovery. My friends just look at me like I have two heads. And you can discuss genealogy on message boards and stuff, but it's likely that no one's really going to share your excitement unless the information you're gushing over is info that concerns them, too (my father tries, but unless I'm jumping up and down over something I discovered about his side of the family, he's not too invested in sharing my excitement...)

But chances are, you're not the only person researching your particular tree. And that's where discovering long-lost relatives comes in. My Raynor side of the family is up to the gills in long-lost relatives - they're easy to find because the Raynors have their own genealogy association you can join. They're not cousins, they're not second-cousins, and more often than not they're not even third cousins - sometimes, the relationship you share goes so far back, you really can't even consider yourself family. Except that you both call Edward your 9th great-grandfather. Which can't help but kind of make you feel like family anyway. Especially when one of you has a copy of a will or a family Bible that lists relatives that pertain to you both. Or when her great-great-grandmother saved and gave her photos of cousins that are your direct ancestors. So these relatives can be a valuable resource. But it can also be nice to just get to know them as "cousins" and as people.

Two examples for ya: about 7 months ago, I was contacted by Milton H. from Georgia. Milton is 75 years old and my 2nd cousin 3 times removed. We were both researching Barbara Reinhardt Haase, born in New York in 1841, my 4th great-grandmother. He sent me a number of very nice e-mails, and we spoke on the phone several times. He was the one who shared with me that his cousin remembered my 3rd great grandfather, Edward Haase, and his fruit stand. He shared with me a number of stories, we exchanged the respective Haase genealogy we had gathered, and most valuable to me was a photo he possessed and shared with me of Barbara and 2 of her sisters, which must have been taken somewhere at the turn of the century.

I used to only focus on my own direct genealogy, but as I became frustrated by the number of brick walls I was hitting (do enough research and you will end up hitting a brick wall. Finally get through that one and you're guaranteed to find another), I decided to branch out my research into the cousin realm. So when Milt e-mailed me, I already had him on my tree! To put a voice to the name was nice, and his information on his siblings, aunts and uncles, and children, helped me in really filling in that Haase cousin line.

Around the same time I heard from Milt, I got an e-mail from April E., my 6th cousin once removed. We were both equally frustrated with the brick wall we had hit with Jacob Raynor, her 6th great-grandfather and my 5th. Because she lives in Baldwin, the next town over, we've been able to meet up several times to share info, talk, and strategize. What's nice in this situation is that we're close in age as well, and so can commisserate with being young researchers in a field that seems to be filled predominantly with people of an older persuasion. I don't think I've been much help to April in the sharing arena, as she is kind of an expert researcher, but she's been invaluable to me, sharing copies of wills and estate lists among other things. I think maybe I've been helpful though in being someone who gets her excitement over a find...or frustration over the lack of one. We went to a local archives to look over all the estate holdings they had microfilmed in the hopes of finding anything on Jacob or his wife Rebecca's family, only to both be horrified that not only were they not indexed but they were not in any kind of chronological or alphabetical order. She is much braver than me, as she is planning on going back. I still get a headache just thinking about that day.

But overall, the genealogy pool makes me think about the human family: we're all much more closely related than we think. There are people living in this world who are so different from me, who lead lives that are completely alien to me, and we are as closely related as 3rd or 4th cousins: a retiree in Germany who was a pilot for Nazi Germany during World War II and who spent several years in a Russian prison camp; young Mormons living and teaching in Hawaii; a young Southern Baptist girl who was home-schooled, only wears dresses, and doesn't believe in dating; we are worlds apart, but we're part of the same family.

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