Today’s Mail Tribune had an article in the TV Tempo section that was promoting a PBS program called “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.” Gates is the director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard and his show features high-profile guests finding their roots. This article follows a series of features on CNN following various staff of that channel tracing their own ancestry. In addition, as we are still unpacking from our recent move to Twin Creeks I was reminded of the boxes and boxes of genealogical materials I had accumulated about 30 years ago in pursuit of my own roots.
When I first began my ancestor tracking journey I had little information to go by. There was no internet and research involved going to a local genealogical library to pour through endless reels of microfilm or writing to state offices for death certificates. Slowly piece-by-pieces I was able to fill in many missing parts of my family history.
This blog is not so much about reaching a destination, such as finding a famous ancestor (none so far) or tracing your family back to the middle ages (I’m around 1623). For me genealogy brings to life two passions I have had for all my adult life; notably travel and history. I had always planned to take all the information I had gathered, documents, newspaper clippings, visits to cemeteries in five states and four countries and write the great family history after I retired.
Well, I have been “retired” for about two years and the history is still not written. What I now realize is that the journey was the real story. Standing on a steep hillside above a Norwegian fjord on the soil my great grandfather farmed or visiting a small village in the Rheingau area of Germany only to discover a distant relative who had heard the story of two brothers coming to America in the 1850’s. Finding a handwritten will from my great grandfather in the basement of a courthouse in Wisconsin or taping my now departed grandmother singing a nursery rhyme in German. One time I knocked on a farm house door in Western Minnesota and introduced to the family living there that my great grandfather had homesteaded the property. They were thrilled to learn what I knew and had some stories to share with me about the homestead farm. I left with square nails from the original barn my great grandfather John Johnson had built and I have a framed copy of his homestead patent dated 1890.
It’s never too late to begin a search for your roots but I would encourage anyone who can afford it to visit the places where their ancestors lived and loved, worked and died. Try and put their life into the context of the time. In many of us with European ancestors often as not wars played a major role in relocation or, as in the case of John Johnson, lack of farming opportunity because he was not the eldest son. Or Franz Jahnke who was a shepherd in Prussia but wanted something better for his family. Take the journey.