11    May 20110 comments

User Story: Carrying the Family History Baton Through the Generations

The 36th Ulster Division, in which one of Steve's ancestors fought

Once in a while we get a story in from a user that not only tells interesting tales about family history anecdotes and findings, but speaks volumes about how we get into this hobby and why we continue it. This story, from Steve Porter, does exactly that. He talks of how he gradually gained interest in the hobby, and took his father's previous research much farther. His story touches upon ancestors in the Great War, out in Canada, and beyond. Here it is in his own words.

Everyone at some point in their life gets blindsided on a lazy Sunday with the thought of where they came from and who were their ancestors. For some the interest lasts five minutes before their mind wanders on to something else but for others it develops from an interest into a hobby into an obsession. That’s what has led me to gather up a collection of people from all over the globe who each share one unique trait. They either share the same lineage as I do or they share the same lineage as my wife. I’ve got over 1,300 names on my tree now, some I know, most I don’t, some living their 21st Century lives, most having already completed theirs in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, some aware their lineage is recorded by a distant relative and who visit to take a look from time to time, most still blissfully unaware their tree has been gathered together.

I should be the last person interested in family history. As a child I loathed visiting my Grand parents. Don’t get me wrong, they [or at least the three who were alive in my childhood] were lovely people. My siblings and cousins loved being in their company but to me they were just old and I didn’t like old people. I hasten to add here that I was still of primary school age and too young to even appreciate what stories these people held.

Like most who develop an interest in family history, I didn’t appreciate the history until it was too late. The last of my grand parents died when I was in my early twenties. I couldn’t care less where my ancestry lay, though, unknown to me, my dad was starting to ask the questions to himself. During the 1990s he, when in his forties, quietly gathered together information on who his grand parents were and then who his wife’s grand parents were. Only one of these people attracted any interest in me. My mother’s grandfather whom I knew from family lore and a large medal in my late grand mother’s house, had lost his life in the great war of 1914-1918.

As my dad gathered more and more information on this long dead ancient ancestor of mine, a man my dad himself bore no relationship to other than having married his grand daughter, I became more and more intrigued by the story of who he was. Drip by drip, tiny pieces of information began arriving in the post and every time I visited my parents there was a little extra such as the war diaries of his regiment and then a book, Three cheers for the Derrys, which told the story of the 36th Ulster Division’s Londonderry battalion in which my great Grand father served and died. Then came the biggest piece of all, my dad and sister travelled to Belgium and found the grave.

At that point my dad felt he had taken this as far as he could and interest in the history of the family had been heightened enough to pass the mantle to me. What a storm he unleashed. I looked at these papers and began entering details on four generations of my family, around seventy or so people into a genealogy website I’d stumbled upon called MyHeritage. As good a place as any to store the details thinks I. Then I did the same for three generations of my wife’s family. At first that was that. My little tree of around one hundred and fifty people sat happily gathering dust until one day I got an email. You’ve got smart matches. I hadn’t even paid attention to what this meant when building the tree and it was only now that I looked at it.

The son of a cousin of my wife’s had built a small tree which in turn had triggered a tree in Canada so that all three collided at the same time. Suddenly my wife was aware of a throng of Canadian second cousins she had only been vaguely aware of from stories from her mother. My wife’s side of our tree had suddenly exploded into life and with it came the first great story to investigate. The Canadian link came through her Great Grandfather, thought to be something of a charmer, even by Irish standards who may or may not have virtually kidnapped his two eldest daughters and sailed to Canada at the start of the Twentieth Century.

Visits to the Government records office and looking into census returns began chipping away at the other branches of the tree until, like hitting seams of gold, a name or date would be added that would trigger a magic green dot. Admittedly my tree on MyHeritage is not used by those of my family who are members as the social network it was designed to be. Occasional message of best wishes for birthdays appear from time to time but I never intended it to be a personal version of Facebook. I was always content to merely hold it as a standing record of who we are and how we connect. Some of the hundred or so people who have been invited to join the site have done so with gusto and visited regularly, adding great rafts of information on their branch. Ultimately such people always progress to creating their own trees over time and the beauties of smart matching glues them together. Some are casual visitors who pop in once a year or so just to see what’s changed or if a family story comes up and they want to find something out. Some never visit at all, perhaps their time to think where they came from hasn’t arrived yet. However deeply they wish to become involved matters not.

Today my tree holds 1,300 names over two families but this is a mere drop in my family ocean. My great great grandparents were married in Londonderry in 1864 and had ten children. If each of those children averaged three children of their own, and each generation came along roughly twenty-five years apart, that one wedding would have so far produced 20,000 descendants.

And we each have eight sets of great great grand parents. I suspect I have many more branches to discover.

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