Here are two photographs of the home of my great-great-great-grandparents, David Eldridge and Hulda (Robbins) Eldridge, in South Chatham, Massachusetts. I took the top photograph in 2015. The bottom photograph is probably from about 1880. The two women nearest the fence are probably my great-great-grandmother, Louisa, and her sister, Caroline. I'm guessing that the third woman is one of their brothers' wives. I don't know the names of any of the cats. Louisa married my great-great-grandfather Walker, the ship pilot on Egmont Key. Louisa was born in this house in 1844 and died in this house in 1918. The house was recently restored and is available as a vacation rental. Every old house is full of stories just waiting to be rediscovered.
In many families, if not in all families, there is one person (and sometimes more than one person) who is fascinated by the family’s history. This individual – let’s call him or her the “Family History Kook”, or “Kook” for short -- is so fascinated by family history, in fact, that he or she will spend hours poring over forgotten letters, photographs, maps, and legal documents, looking through dusty, old genealogical compilations, scouring the internet for any tidbits of information which can be found about people who died decades or centuries earlier, and compiling information into individual records and family trees. Hours fly by uncounted and unnoticed.
Nobody, certainly not the Kook, completely understands this fascination or its origins. The normal family members generally don’t much care about what the Kook does, and that is, at least in part, a good thing, because these other family members are happy to pass along to the Kook all of the old photographs, books, and papers that would otherwise waste valuable space on their own bookshelves or in their own storage boxes until meeting a sadder end in a down-at-its-heels antique store or, more likely, a landfill.
On the other hand, the Kook only gets blank stares from his or her relatives and friends when bringing up what he or she considers deeply fascinating information which he or she has just discovered. That is, this happens until the Kook has learned that few others share the interest, and that his or her enthusiasm about his or her discoveries will generally only be considered bizarre if expressed.
I admit it. I am the Kook in my family. I blame my grandmother for this, since she was The Kook in her family. She probably contracted the affliction from her grandfather, who spent many years of his life researching family history and putting what he discovered into journals. This was in the days when there were no automobiles, no copying machines, no computers, no internet, and no telephones. He kept meticulous records of the letters he sent to distant town clerks and fourth cousins and of the interviews he conducted at his home or when traveling across the state.
Though I have spent far less time in this endeavor than did the earlier Kooks in my family, thanks to modern technology I have collected much more information than they ever did, in the process correcting some of their errors and incorrect guesses. This, however, does not detract from the great significance of what they did, from the pleasure they derived from it, or from the connections they made while doing it.
Some may believe that genealogy is just about drawing lines between names of the deceased, and it can be limited to that but it can also be much more. A name on a chart without any information about who that person was, what they did, or where they lived, has little significance, especially if it doesn’t connect back to others about whom worthwhile information has been found. Anyone who studies his or her family history in any depth eventually realizes that all humans are related anyway, and in ways much closer than most people would think. Joseph T. Chang, a Yale University mathematician, recently estimated that we probably only have to look back about 3,000 years to find a common ancestor of every person on earth alive today. [Most Recent Common Ancestor of all Living Humans Surprisingly Recent. (9/30/2004). Science Daily. Retrieved 7/24/14 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/09/040930122428.htm] A concept like this makes one see how small our world really is.
If I had to try to explain my great fascination with exploring family history, I would say that this exploration is your own, personal doorway into earlier times. To a greater degree, somehow, than other people in history, your own ancestors are real. These ancestors are an actual part of you, and not just in terms of your genetic makeup. Through the countless generations, who your ancestors were, what your ancestors did, and the things that happened to your ancestors have contributed, directly and indirectly, in ways known and unknowable, to the person you are today. These people and their lives are part of you, and by looking back into their lives, you can, for a short time, go back and be a part of them and their world, learning history through genealogical time travel. It’s almost the same thing that happens when you read an engrossing novel or watch a compelling film or stage production that totally absorbs you and pulls you in to its own reality. But it’s much better.
The Kook is a student of history. He or she is also, by nature, an organizer, deriving pleasure out of taking jumbled, disordered, disconnected information and placing it into charts and narratives where it is arranged properly, thereby allowing relationships to be understood and making some sense out of the world, or at least creating some illusion of sense.
The Kook is also a detective. The greatest thrill for him or her comes from discovering facts that were not known, or facts that had once been known but had been subsequently forgotten or, perhaps even better, facts that were once known but were deliberately concealed.
Many significant events have been concealed because they were considered by the people connected with those events to be scandalous or otherwise indicative of some failure or weakness on the part of themselves or their families. It is almost always the case that the problematic event is at some point no longer considered scandalous or indicative of failure or weakness, either because so much time has passed and the people directly involved are long gone, or because societal judgments have changed.
In addition to the concealed facts, there is the entertaining and challenging element of false reports. Human history is recorded by humans, and in addition to hiding and fabricating facts, humans make mistakes. All the time. Information contained in census reports, probate files, newspaper reports, and any other source is sometimes just plain wrong. When it is wrong, you might figure out that it’s wrong, or you might not. Sometimes there will be conflicting information, and you just have decide which piece is the more believable one. It’s all part of the fun.