At some point in our lives, everyone wonders, even a little, about where they came from.
Not that awkward talk that your mom or dad had with you when you were 12. But our families histories. What was your grandmother like when she was a girl? How did she live through the Great Depression? (Or if you’re depressingly younger than me, your great-grandmother?) Did your great-great-great grandfather serve in the U.S Civil War? Or were they overseas, living their own lives, fighting their own wars, facing their own struggles?
If you’ve ever wondered that, you’re probably interested in genealogy, the study or one’s family history. You can do things like scour the Internet and see if you have a long-lost relative who has done this kind of research (I lucked out this way, and found someone who had 16 generations of my paternal grandmother’s family; it turns out, everyone with the name Blankevoort is related, and I have the charts to prove it).
Or, you can check a site like Ancestry.com, and see if you can find census records, birth and death records, and even social security information. But there’s a cost associated with it, so it can be a little pricey, if you’re only going to dabble ($23 per month or $155 for an annual membership).
But, if you live in, around, or within a day of Fort Wayne, you’ve got access to the largest publicly-held genealogy library in the world at the Allen County Public Library. And the best thing about it? It’s free. You can even access a lot of materials online from your own home, although there are several databases where you can only access it from within the building.
I had a chance to visit the library with several other travel writers and to get a tour of the place with director Jeff Krull. He showed us all kinds of bound city directories from thousands of cities from around the US, the microfiche and microfilm departments, and how to access a lot of this information on the computers they have in the library.
Best of all? They subscribe to Ancestry.com, so it’s free to use. So are all of the other genealogy resources you would ever want to use in a search for your ancestors around the world.
As Jeff showed us around, we all geeked out over the moving shelves filled with the different city directories and historic volumes. You can press a button, and the shelves will move on tracks to give you room to stand inside and peruse them.
This, of course, led to all kinds of questions. Can someone be crushed in them? How do they know if someone is inside? Can we try it on Erik? Soon, we were all taking turns pressing buttons on the shelves and marveling at how smart they were. We would have spent a couple hours there playing with the shelves if Jeff hadn’t moved us on.
Since we had free access to Ancestry.com, I thought I would check it out. I had used it on a two-week free trial several months before, and thought I would try it again. I hadn’t had much luck, but I never tried to go much farther back than my great-great grandfather on my mother’s side. Where was he from? We speculated that he was from England or Scotland, but had no idea. I had found him and his father in Maine in the census records back in the 1880s, but that’s all I knew.
So I started digging. I spotted my G2 (great-great) grandfather, and found that his parents were listed. A click of the mouse, and I had his father’s name. And there were his parents. And so on, and so on, all the way back to the baptism of John in 1762 in Cumberland, England.
I was so excited. My mom and I had been dabbling in these searches off and on for a few years, but no one had ever found this much information. It was a treasure trove of new discoveries. I was leading an exploration back into history, and entire new worlds were unfolding before us. My G4 grandfather was 14 years old in 1776 when my own country fought for its independence against his country. Did he ever wonder what the world would be like in 200+ years, or wonder what his progeny would be doing?
I was so excited, I copied everything by hand, printed a few things out, and nearly called my mom with the exciting news.
Then I realized that the only reason I was able to find any of this information was because someone else had done all the research for me. Someone else was also interested in that part of the family. And because I was logged in, I could even see who the researcher was, contact them, and maybe find a long lost member of the family.
I looked a little closer at the user name on the screen, and my heart sank when I recognized the name.
It was my mom.
All that cool information that I had discovered, and wanted to share with the entire family? I didn’t discover it. What took me minutes had probably taken her hours and even days.
Needless to say, I was disappointed that I didn’t have anything new and cool to share with her. But I’d had an awesome time and learned an awful lot about my family history, the country of our origin (England), and most importantly, the fact that if I ever need to use the world’s largest public genealogy library, I only live 90 minutes away.