My name is Laurel Busch, and I’ve been researching my family history since I was 12. Then my sources were my parents, aunts and uncles, and grandmother. Now my sources are almost all on the Internet. In between I’ve done my share of letter writing, book checking and microfilm scrolling.
I have what I think is fairly typical European ancestry (German, English, Irish, Norwegian). My ancestors for the past few generations have lived in New York, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
When I married my husband in the 1970s, I began researching his family, too. His ancestors are all Germans who immigrated to Missouri and Kansas.
Why I’m Hooked on Family History
I started researching my family history more than 50 years ago. I have been fascinated by it for several reasons. I think the main reason is my belief that I am made up of parts of all my ancestors. I share my appearance with my mom and her Grandmother Barrows; my love of gardening with my own Grandma Barrows and her mother; my love of reading with my grandfathers and their fathers; and my love of writing and nature with my Grandma Spencer and my mother’s cousin, Ruth Denning. I keep a journal the way my Great-great-grandfather Spawr did. I spend a lot of time staring out the window the way my Grandma Barrows did, and sometimes I like to just sit outside and look at my garden the way my Great-grandfather Spencer used to go sit and look at the cornfield in the evenings. Sometimes I wonder—would they be as delighted as I am to know I inherited these traits from them? For that matter, did they ever think about or wonder about me?
Forgetting myself for a moment, I am interested in the stories of people’s lives. I have always found it satisfying to view someone’s life as a whole and the way it fits together with surrounding lives. (I’m one of those people who enjoy novels that cover several generations.) Being able to do this with my own ancestors is especially satisfying. Besides the enjoyment of what I’ve learned, I enjoy the process of gathering and sharing the information. It’s a lot of fun playing detective. I think we family history researchers get hooked on new discoveries. Fortunately, there’s always at least one more lead to follow.
Keeping the Search Manageable
Since I got on the Internet in 1996, I’ve found Web sites and distant cousins who have provided the names of thousands of distant relatives. I gradually realized that it would be physically impossible to enter every single name into my genealogy software. Furthermore, I wasn’t even motivated to try. I realized that these distant ancestors didn’t have much to do with my reasons for researching my family history.
Of course each generation doubles in number, but have you ever done the math? How much of a connection can a person have with an eighth great-grandparent when you have 1,024 of them? (You have 16,384 twelfth great-grandparents and 1,048,576 eighteenth great-grandparents.) You can only estimate how many descendants each pair of ancestors has. How much can you have in common with a cousin who had two of the same eighth great-grandparents as you and 1,022 different eighth great-grandparents?
I decided to set an arbitrary cutoff point. Now I limit my time and energy to actively researching all of my ancestors (and those of my husband) up to the 3rd great-grandparents (32 ancestors on each side). I also try to compile information on all of their descendants (our cousins). If I happen across information about earlier generations and their descendants I’m happy to add it to my files, but I’m not willing to do the research myself.
Men Who Think Only Their Surname Matters
I would like to point out here that a family “tree” limited to one surname is just one root of it. It’s hard for me to understand why some male family history researchers ignore the roots of all the women who marry into their surname line. They act as if they have no relationship with 75% of their grandparents, 88% of their great-grandparents, 94% of their great-great-grandparents, and so on. The good thing about it is that some male family history researchers research a long way back. All I need to do is find a male researcher with the surname of each of my dead ends!
Science and Genealogy
I’m eager to see how DNA research advances family history research. At the same time, I’m suspicious of anyone collecting personal information into a database, so I’m not volunteering for any projects at the moment.
The Nov. 4, 2007, issue of the Lost Cousins newsletter has clarified a few things about genealogical DNA testing for me. It says that DNA testing can trace only your paternal line (father’s father’s father, etc.) or maternal line (mother’s mother’s mother, etc.). As I pointed out above, by the time you get back to your eighth great-grandparents these are only two of 1,024 ancestors in that generation! In my opinion, that severely restricts the usefulness of DNA in genealogy.
There’s another way at looking at DNA and genealogy in general terms. Steve Olson, author of Mapping Human History (2002), says it’s a mathematical certainty that everyone on Earth today is a descendant of one person living a few thousand years ago. He says we are all connected to everyone who has ever lived. Furthermore, he says that every person who was living on Earth 5,000 to 7,000 years ago is an ancestor to all 6 billion people living today (unless that person’s line died out and he or she has no remaining descendants at all now).
These statements are based on math. The number in each previous generation is doubled, and 40 generations ago—about the 9th century—each person living today has more than a trillion ancestors. Obviously, there weren’t a trillion people living then (there were about 200 million). The explanation is that the same people appear in more than one branch of your family tree. In fact, Olson says, most of the people who lived 1,200 years ago appear thousands of times in our family trees.
Did you know that 35 million Americans are supposedly descended from the people who came to America on the Mayflower in 1620? This number was calculated by Nathaniel Philbrick in Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War using 102 passengers and three and half generations per century.
According to an Associated Press article by Matt Crenson in July 2006, experts say that approximately 80 percent of the people living in England now are descendants of King Edward III, who ruled during the 14th century. Among his proven descendants in America are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, and Robert E. Lee. I guess I am least a cousin to Edward III since Franklin Delano Roosevelt is my fifth cousin three times removed! But so what?
Privacy and identify theft were not concerns when I started gathering data about family members in 1965, but it is now. I withhold the birth and marriage dates of living persons when I exchange information with other genealogists. I have never posted such information on the Internet.
I hope that privacy fears will not hamper the role of family history researchers in gathering and recording the current histories of our families. Haven’t we all wished that our ancestors had written down all of their vital statistics while the information was current so we didn’t have to go to all the work of researching it?