The 1970's television production of Alex Haley's book on his African ancestry called Roots" ignited a spark of interest in the social science of genealogy and gave birth to a new industry. Almost overnight the topic of discussion in American households became family origins, and amateur lineage sleuths began popping up across the nation like dry corn in a microwave. That is how I got started.
Family History research is, next to gardening, the most popular pastime of the nation. Since the introduction of the computer it has become the second most popular "search" on the world wide web-outranked only by pornography. That is a disturbing message.
One of the greatest problems we have in the world today is the lack of identity, especially among young people. We are not souls wandering the earth alone, organized from nothing, accountable to no one or without purpose, despite the fact that many of us believe the opposite. Family history research connects us with the past, anchors us to the present, and leads us toward the future. Just as Christopher Columbus set sail on his voyage to discover a water passage to the Far East, family history researchers are embarking on their own voyage of discovery, and like Columbus many are entering uncharted waters. Skeletons are being pulled out of closets, hidden secrets revealed, family myths, fables and lies exposed, and the wonder, mystery and excitement of solving a mystery, or gaining knowledge is being experienced.
If you are harboring a desire to begin tracing your origins, a moment of caution should be observed. Genealogy is more than tracing an individual line. Over the years it has developed into tracing a "family" and documenting all their warts, failures, foibles, heroes, triumphs, and uniqueness. It gives each of us a place in history. If one is not careful it can become a lifetime avocation, and may even become an obsession. The amateur researcher experiences a strange metamorphosis that eventually changes them into "Sherlock Holmes" complete with "Dr. Watson."
Instead of viewing the relics of the past and enjoying delicious delicacies on your vacations, most of your time will be spent among the silent sentinels of the dead and the dusty tomes and papers of courthouses and libraries. Very little time will be devoted to leisure, and food becomes simply fuel to keep you going. If you have a weight problem, it might even help you lose a few pounds. It did me.
Your finances will definitely suffer. Every extra penny you can beg, borrow or hide will be used to further your research, improve your sleuthing skills, purchase a book, membership, record a crucial document, or to follow up a lead in an inaccessible cemetery, courthouse, or village, not to mention the miscellaneous supplies and paraphernalia that proclaims your vocation and commitment to your peers. Although computers, CD's, databases, and the www are making the process less tedious and sometimes more effective, the principle medium is still good old paper and pencil. So you will find your floors sinking, shelves bending, and rooms crowding with the hard copies of your endeavor.
The possibility of blindness from endless hours spent reading microfilm, or scrolling a computer screen is almost a certainty. The very least you can expect is a change in your eyeglass prescription. Headaches from the tedious deciphering of illegible handwriting, and water stained, moth eaten records will lead you to using a magnifying glass or reading glasses long before your 60th birthday. Carpel tunnel syndrome is a risk from the writer's cramp you will get from copious note taking, writing letters, thank you notes, and queries. Backaches from hours of sitting in hard bottom chairs bent over research materials will support your chiropractor and eventually lead to inflammation of the joints and arthritis. Worst of all the scent of dusty aging paper, mildew, and leather will provide a delicious aroma that will become a permanent part of your proboscis.
Sound exciting? Just what you have always wanted to experience? Right now your probably asking yourself why any sane person would even consider much less actually embark on such a course of action. The answer is simple. The possibility of discovery always adds a sense of expectancy to life. Family history research is one of the most rewarding, interesting, fascinating, and exciting discoveries a person can experience.
When you have spent days, months, and even years trying to identify a name in the family line or find a missing link in the trail and suddenly make the connection, there is as much excitement generated as winning a football game, getting an inheritance, or going to Hawaii.
The greatest growth the searcher experiences, however, is in themselves. Persistence, patience, and understanding become traits they develop. A new appreciation for heritage and pride in family are learned, and love of those who went before and sacrificed so much becomes a reality. As the family tree grows from a twig to a sapling to an oak, you will meet and get to know the people who have been and are now responsible for the name you bear and place you occupy. There will be the good and the bad, the hero and the coward, the rich man and the poor man, the laborer and the businessman. As you wade through the past into the present and look to the future, Great Granddad Smith and Aunt Gertrude Jones will become more than names in a Bible or on a pedigree chart. They will become real people who lived out their lives. They possessed the same faults, virtues, and desires of every human being, and experienced the same problems and turmoil in their lives that you experience in yours. Suddenly you recognize the influence they had in determining the type of person you are, and who you have the potential to become. Many times an added benefit can be the reunion of estranged family members or the discovery of lost relatives and it can also act as the catalyst in uniting far-flung families into an organization fulfilling a common cause.
The greatest blessing I feel that comes from this research is the realization that you are not alone in a sea of multi-culturalism that absorbs you at the same time it isolates you. It leads you back to firm ground and gives you the sense of who you are, where you came from, and the part you play in existence. For Americans, perhaps, the most important thing it does, is to give us back our "identity." Simply "American" replaces the divisiveness of African American, Native American, Japanese or Arab American. We once again become acquainted with the dreams, hopes, expectations, and future that each of our ancestors brought with them to these shores. They all came from other lands, including the American Indian, to this place that was set apart for the formation of a new and wonderful concept. No matter where they came from or what their heritage this new experiment welded them all into one thing, an" American."
A final word of warning. Once you start, be prepared to continue. No matter what problems you face, you won't be able to quit. Brick walls will be reached and dead end roads encountered, but it is not our destination that matters, it's the journey forward and who we are when we finish. That's what family is all about, and that's why I do this.