Genealogy websites that help people trace their family histories love to focus on fortunate souls descended from royalty, or related in some distant and indirect way to Maya Angelou (pictured in CA).
Yet genealogical research is just as likely to turn up horse thieves, drifters and scandals of every sort.
“You’re going to find stuff you don’t want to know,” says Ceil Lucas, a sociolinguist, amateur genealogist and author of How I Got Here: A Memoir. “But who knows, those might be your most fascinating finds.”
Genealogy is experiencing a resurgence of popularity with such TV shows as Who Do You Think You Are and Finding Your Roots, but it’s never really been out of fashion.
Lucas began working on her family history three decades ago, about the same time she began making notes on what would become a memoir of her childhood in Guatemala City and Rome, Italy, from ages 5 to 21. This upbringing left her with a sense of “I’m not from here” – “here” being the U.S., where she was born.
But her genealogical research, which revealed her first ancestors coming to the U.S. from Scotland in 1654 and England in 1679, showed her just how “from here” she is. Lucas realized that the stories of her ancestors needed to be included in her memoir, as they give the broadest picture of how she got here. The result was a genealogical memoir.
“The thing is, once the genealogical story is learned, it simply can’t be unlearned,” she says. “It’s a large and integral part of how I understand my life and how I see myself.”
She has suggestions for others who want to delve into their family histories:
- Talk to relatives. The best place to start is with what you already know, Lucas says. You’re probably aware of at least some of your family’s history, especially as it pertains to your mother and father. An excellent way to begin adding to that is to speak to your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who can fill in some of the blanks.
- Check census records. Every 10 years since 1790 the census has taken a snapshot of who’s living in the United States. Valuable information can be found in census records, and you might even discover relatives you never heard about.
- Sign up for a genealogy class. Many community colleges offer non-credit courses in genealogy that will help you understand how to research your family and interpret what you find.
- DNA testing. People often think they know their ethnic lineage, but discover surprises when they have a DNA test. Lucas’ DNA test revealed that she is descended not only from people who hailed from England and Scotland, but also the Iberian Peninsula.
“It also probably doesn’t hurt if you are a nerd about these things like me,” Lucas says. “I found an ancestor who was involved in the Oklahoma Land Rush, so I researched that and found newspaper articles about the land rush. I think it’s important to put your family story in the historical context, especially if you plan to write a memoir. That stuff is just really interesting to me.”
Ceil Lucas, author of How I Got Here: A Memoir, is a sociolinguist. She holds a bachelor’s degree in French and Art History, a master’s degree in French and Italian, and a doctorate in Linguistics. She spent 40 years as a university professor and researcher. She began teaching Italian in 1973 and continues to do so. She is the editor and co-author of 22 books.