The Worst Question in Genealogy

Mechanics of Time TravelNow that we’ve unpacked most of the stuff in our new home in Albuquerque, we’re in the getting-out-and-meeting-new-people phase of our move. That means that we hear the usual get-to-know you questions on a regular basis…like, “What do you do?”

When I tell them I’m a genealogist, they sometimes think I mean:

  • A doctor who specializes in lady parts
  • A genetics expert
  • A rock expert
  • A jewelry expert

When I explain that I find dead people, nine times out of ten, the next question I get is this:

How far back have you gone?

Am I the only one who hates that question? Because here’s the answer: After nearly 20 years, I’m back to around 1800 or so.

Of course, they’re disappointed, because they wanted to hear that you were back to the Mayflower or  Thor or Adam and Eve or something. Nope. Not me. 1800-ish.

Confession: I’m not even all that interested in getting all the way back to Thor. I like American history. I’m interested in research here in the United States, and as soon as they’re back in Europe, I’m…well, not entirely disinterested, but much more likely to wander off in search of ice cream. My original attraction to genealogy was about understanding The Big Move–why they came, what they experienced when they got here, and what happened as a result of their decision to come. I’ve been moving my whole life, so big moves are a big deal for me.

I’m also much more interested in completely filling out a generation than going back one more. I want to know every sibling, every in-law, every godparent and neighbor and business associate, for each generation. Roughly 70% of my file cabinet is occupied by collateral lines, not direct ancestors. I’ve got a three-inch file on the family of my great-grandmother’s brother’s wife’s family, and three more inches on her half-brother’s wife’s sisters. I’ve even got a file on the law partner of my great-great-grandfather’s brother. I’m not sorry, because those folks are fascinating, and they’re recent enough that I’m able to craft a pretty clear picture of their lives. I don’t feel like I can do that with people who lived in the 1600s in Norway.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ll get to those way-back folks eventually. But for me, the fun of genealogy is working on people from the past 200 years, where there’s enough meat available that I can really know them. I like being able to visit their towns (without a passport and a pile of money). I like reading their newspapers (in English). I like paying a fortune for their yearbooks on eBay so I can see what they looked like.

What about you? Do you like to go back as far as you can…or as wide as you can? Am I the only freak who mostly likes this side of the ocean? 

Photo by Bob Owen


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