Generations of Genes Copyright © Phyllis Jeans 2000
All rights reserved ISBN 0 473 03868 4
PEMM Publishing Cambridge, New Zealand
Probably most people at sometime or another wonder about their ancestors. Who were they? Where did they come from? To many, this is a fleeting interest and curiosity is diminished by leafing through an old photograph album or listening with varying degrees of attention to the tales of an older generation. But for some, interest grows. Caught in a self-imposed task to find out we are surprised at the records that exist to help us. We learn of official registration, parish registers, cemetery transcripts, census returns, shipping lists and school admission registers. We begin to haunt archival repositories. There are wills, coroners’ reports, land tenure records, naturalization papers, quarter-session records, hearth tax lists, poor law accounts and poll books. Success will vary from record to record and from ancestor to ancestor.
Research varies from the quick-skim-through of an easily printed record to the deciphering of a document written hundreds of years ago, in an unfamiliar script, faded and sometimes ragged and water-stained. Research is time consuming, often negative, sometimes expensive and occasionally tedious. Old newspapers, given perseverance, are usually rewarding but take a lot of time. It is all too easy to be constantly side-tracked by the columns of what is now history but at the time was the latest news. Old diaries and letters are useful; if not of our own family, someone else may have left contemporary writings. A photograph now faded and indistinct will give some image to a name.
Over thirty years ago I became actively interested in family history, and made a decision to research the ancestry of our three children. Knowledge of their forbears was limited. As time and money allowed I began writing the first letters of enquiry and gathering official certificates. Afraid of seeming intrusive, tentative excursions into oral history were neither constructive nor consistent. These lost opportunities are regretted.
Initial research involved official registration certificates here in New Zealand. If at the time of a birth, a marriage or a death, the information asked for was correctly given, and correctly recorded, these certificates are an excellent way to begin. They lead from the present to the past, from the known to the unknown. I became aware of the Genealogical Library of the Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, United States of America. Living within reasonable distance of Templeview Family History Centre, Hamilton, further research became physically and financially possible for me.
In earlier times the documentation of ordinary people from whom most of us are descended, was brief. It consisted of the bare-bones of baptism, marriage and burial entered in the registers of the parish the person was living in at the time. Although some ancestors may have stayed tidily in the same parish for generations, going no further than a mile or two away to find a spouse, others were not so considerate to their descendants who would later seek to know more about them. Even if the name is quite uncommon there is no certainty the namesake found elsewhere belongs to you. Each person may be unique. Names seldom are.
Some problems encountered are unavoidable. The threads binding one generation to another have been broken. Difficulties arise because of the frailty of human memory. Many may be the reasons for various degrees of concealment of a family’s past. Family stories grow with the telling. It is human nature to put a little gloss on family anecdotes, and sometimes one generation takes out of a particular story more than was meant or the facts would support. The true story is often less colourful and less grand.
It is well to remember when beginning family history to be prepared for anything, and to accept with equanimity whatever research discloses. No doubt, if we thought about it in the beginning, we would hope our ancestors had led worthy and irreproachable lives, honest in all their dealings and kind to everyone. However, we are not spared surprises as we gather to ourselves an interesting group of progenitors. Some of our forbears may have been rather wanting in some particular virtue. If we want only ‘good’ ancestors there is perhaps little point in researching at all. If we want only to pursue ‘safe’ lines we are denying a part of ourselves.
The vast majority of people make no great mark in history. Important only to their own, they played their part in the greater scheme. They were doers, not innovators. In their daily lives they carried out the wishes and orders of others. They fought and sometimes died in the wars they did not cause. They suffered political decisions but for centuries the franchise was denied them. Religious and political authority of the few controlled the many. Their lives are generally unrecorded and unremembered.