Researching one’s family history and genealogy is a fascinating hobby with many twists and turns which may lead to some very unexpected results. For me, it all started with an old pine box that came from my grandfather’s attic. The box was packed full of old books, letters, papers, photos, journals and other mementos of the past.
As I began sifting through these old relics, I realized I needed a way to keep track of all my new found ancestors. I had recently purchased my first personal computer and found a genealogy program that I thought would meet my needs. That program has now gone through multiple versions of upgrades and several generations of PC’s. Today, I have 4,918 people entered into my family tree.
Most of my genealogy research has been based on various Internet web sites, but that is not where it started. The documents from the old pine box and other family treasures enabled me to trace some of the family lines back ten generations or more. When using Internet web sites, I found it was much more effective to start my search with an ancestor from several generations back, than to start with my parents or grandparents.
As I began tracing by family roots on these genealogy websites, I was amazed at how much information there was and how far back I could go. I found evidence going back 38 generations to show that I was descended from Charlemagne, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in the 7th century. But the line didn’t stop there. I found I was also related to all of the ancient Frankish Kings of the Merovingian Dynasty (modern day France) going back to Marcomir IV King of the Franks in the 2nd century AD, and to Clodius II King of the West Franks who died sometime about 20 AD. Then, tracing another line, I found I was also related 63 generations back to the Welsh King Coel Hen, who lived between 125 and 170 AD. He was also known as “Ole King Cole.” Yet another search ended up with Jøkull Karasson, a mythical third century King of Kvenland (part of ancient Scandinavia) who was also known as King Frosti (perhaps the inspiration for Frosty the Snowman!).
I realized, of course, that some of the data in these web sites was questionable at best, if not downright fabricated. What is the likelihood that I was actually related to Ole King Cole and Frosty the Snowman? The further back in time one goes, the more likely it is that errors have slipped into the records. Errors introduced by one amateur genealogist tend to get picked up and copied by other researchers. And separating truth from fiction can be challenging to say the least.
Careful comparison of information from different sources, and examination of where the information came from is a painstaking but necessary requirement to assure some degree of accuracy. Church records (births, baptisms, marriages and deaths), along with census records, military records and legal documents, such as wills and court records, are a good place to start.
There is a good deal of information available online on people who emigrated to America in the Colonial era. In 2017 I set out to identify as many of my mother’s immigrant ancestors as possible. I managed to find information on 127 ancestors who came to America in the 17th and 18th centuries, nearly all of them from England. For many of these ancestors I was able not only to find the basic facts of name, dates and places of birth and death, but also many other details of their lives as well. Many of them were Puritans who came to America during the great Puritan migration from 1630 to 1650.
The information I found revealed that many of my immigrant ancestors led extraordinary lives, overcame tremendous hardships and made profound contributions to the establishment of this country. Some were well educated, successful and prosperous leaders of their newly founded towns and communities in America. Others were more ordinary: tradesmen, farmers and servants. Some had their share of trouble with the law, as court records of the time testify. Many were pillars of the church, while others were accused of offenses such as pig stealing or witchcraft. One ancestor was in the first graduating class of Harvard in 1642. Another was a 60-year-old school master when he made the voyage to America in 1645. One was a shoemaker who was fined for faulty workmanship on 14 pairs of shoes. His wife also got into trouble with the law for vowing to a neighbor, “I could break thy head!”
One of my most interesting immigrant ancestors was a man named Philip Babb. Born in 1608 in England, Babb came to Appledore Island off the coast of Maine with his wife and son who was also named Philip. The elder Philip probably came with a fishing fleet in search of cod, which were in abundance there at the time. His son is said to have been a pirate who buried his treasure on the island where no one has ever found it. There are several accounts of the younger Philip haunting the island after his death, wielding a sharp heavy blade, dripping blood and wearing a butcher’s apron. Who wouldn’t want a pirate ghost in their family tree?
Researching your family tree should be a quest for historical accuracy. Once in a while, however, we are tempted to indulge in fantasy, legend and perhaps — the macabre. For this reason, the information you pass on to your children and grandchildren should always be prefaced with the phrase, “As best I know ...”