I am not a great genealogist. I am not even an amateur genealogist. I mostly dig into my own family roots as an effort to
bolster my already massive ego by association connect with my ancestors. Thanks to some great genealogical work by my mom and others in our family, combined with connecting through common ancestors to others’ family lines, I’ve got some pretty extensive family trees, dating back well over a thousand years in some cases.
Having said that, I’ve recently been looking through my family tree on familysearch to get a sense for what “my people” were all about. Partly this was fueled by doing a DNA kit and discovering how varied my European roots were, and then it was kicked up a notch when I went to Boston a month ago and found the house built by one of my direct ancestors in 1636 that is still standing. Trying to understand how people lived their lives is interesting, and wondering if I would have made the same types of choices or different ones is a fun exercise.
But here’s one thing I’m discovering as I look through my own family tree, something I also saw when our ward had an indexing challenge: People are sucky genealogists. Like, really really bad. Indexing taught me one lesson, that nobody can read cursive anymore, much less archaic cursive where the letter F looks like S and the vowels are nearly all enigmatic and surname spelling changes from one generation to the next. But looking at my family tree has taught me that there’s a lot of error due to wishful thinking, not knowing history, and being incapable of seeing glaring logical errors or doing a rudimentary Google search . Here are some of the obvious errors I’ve found in my own family tree:
- Heinrich of Babenberg, born in Babenburg Castle in Germany. Thing is, there’s no Babenberg Castle, but there is a Badenburg Castle, and I only know this because I have other ancestors born in this castle. So, this is a case of not being able to tell a B from a D, likely due to handwritten records or a typo.
- Roger Holland, born 1442, died 1494. It is claimed he was burned at the stake. Here’s the problem. The Roger Holland who is the Protestant martyr (burned by Queen Mary I at Smithfield with 12 others) died in 1558, not 1494.
- John Brown Jr was supposedly born in 1591 in Watertown, Mass and died in 1616. Plymouth was founded in 1620. Watertown was founded in 1630. Likewise, Alice Henel was born in 1595 in Watertown, Mass and died there in 1617. These folks were ahead of their time!
- Guy de Chevreuse was born in 1130 in France, then died in 1192. That was pretty inconvenient since his son was apparently born in 990, and his grandson was born in 950!
This reminds me of the times I’ve been in the temple and noticed that a name appeared to be incorrect. The workers instruct you to just roll with it as written, and it makes sense because in a world where humans get to just make up names for their kids (or for immigrants), people’s names are often wacky yet true. But it also brings up some of the same rhetorical questions I always think about whenever I think about the daunting / impossible task of getting a complete and accurate record of the human family. So I will pose these rhetorical questions to you.
- Aren’t most lines going to snuff out once you hit poverty? Clearly, record keeping is only for royalty at some point. The rest of it got used as kindling to stave off the cold winter at some point in the middle ages, no?
- Does accuracy even matter (beyond one’s gee whiz collection)?
- Is the point of genealogy doing ordinances (even when they are duplicated or inaccurate) or is it to “turn the hearts” to our ancestors–meaning that immersion in a hobby is probably on point?
I’ll end by sharing a story that I found amusing. Years ago, our family was in Vietnam on vacation. We wanted a local experience, so we went to a small village and met a family in their home. The father took us into what he called “the most important room” in their house–the ancestor room. Vietnamese religion is focused on ancestor worship. There was a shrine to each of three prominent ancestors including their picture, plus offerings of incense and flowers. Then he took us over to the wall to the right where their family tree was laid out–it covered the whole wall. A few generations earlier, a gggrandfather had four wives, and this traced the lineage of all four. He also shared stories about the ancestors being revered; these were like scripture. It was fascinating.
I shared that story in a council meeting in Relief Society thinking how similar we are as humans when we look to the past for self-knowledge. A sister piped up saying how wonderful it was that the Lord was preparing the Vietnamese people for the gospel! I nearly did a spit take (well, it was fast Sunday, and unfortunately, we don’t serve Diet Coke in our RS, so it was more of a double take). Ancestor worship in Vietnam is an ancient practice! It predates Christianity by millenia! Some evidence dates it to 6000 B.C.
- What do you think the purpose of genealogy is?
- Have you gotten into it at all? What’s your motivation?
- Do you think there are parallels to ancestor worship, or is it completely different in your mind?
 In fairness, I’m sure some of this genealogy was done before Google.