03 May 2012

Genealogy is hip!

Is it just me, or is genealogy really "big" these days?  Two genealogical shows are on the air: NBC's Who Do You Think You Are? (sponsored by Ancestry.com), and PBS' Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  Of the two, I think the Gates one is more sensitive, thorough, and academic, but I enjoy the NBC show too.  I watch them both.

I think every family has a resident historian, My dad's mom was really into family history.  My mother's sister has done tremendous amounts of research.  In my generation, that's me.

In my senior year English class, we had a choice of two projects: genealogical research, or a literary paper.  I picked the former.  I worked pretty hard at it, but my entire family is French-Canadian, and in the late 1980s, the only way I could do any research at all would have been an extensive trip to Quebec (Fun!  but no...), or a LOT of letter-writing (in French), in the hopes of a response (in French).  Limited success from the letter-writing.  I didn't get back further than a few generations, except for piggy-backing on research from extended family.

I've had an Ancestry.com account for a couple of years. (I know, I know - the Mormons have probably posthumously baptized all my ancestors by now.  Oh well.)  I've made a few remarkable discoveries.  First, that French-Canadian parish records of births, marriages, and deaths are exceedingly orderly.  Second, and this is a biggie, in Quebecois cultural records, women are listed by MAIDEN name throughout their lives, for all events, even the records of their children's baptisms, and their own death.  That makes researching a particular individual so much easier.  If "Marie Catherine Barbeau" is called that at birth, in every church document, public census document, everywhere, you can always find her and feel fairly confident you're on the right track.

WW Norton & Company, Inc.

So what does this have to do with books?  I just picked up and blazed through Bryan Sykes' Seven Daughters of Eve.  It focuses on mitochondrial DNA - DNA that is passed down, intact, from mother to child.  Tracking the markers backward, researchers have been able to trace all of humanity back to less than 35 "clan mothers."  For those of us of European descent, that number is just seven women. Wow.  On Finding Your Roots, many of the featured people (especially European Jews and African-Americans) are able to learn about their heritage only through mDNA because written records are lost, or never existed at all.

Genealogy, until recently, I think, has mostly been an endeavor to trace a family name (paternalistic, indeed).  In my own family, the effort had stopped at my great-great-grandmothers - pretty much the end of the oral history line.  Until now, no one bothered to search for more records about my father's father's mother's family, or any of my great great great mothers.  But she is every bit a part of my background as the part of the family that happens to have my surname.  It's refreshing indeed to read about matrilineal history (via mDNA).  I've been able to break that barrier and I've already searched back many generations... the fathers and mothers of each ancestor.  I want to know about my foremothers.

And there's only one line of work I've seen thus far, in all the records: "cultivateur."  Farmer.  Farmer after farmer.  No princes, or knights, no doctors, teachers, merchants, miners, sailors, barbers, or blacksmiths.  Just farmers.  At least they were consistent!

My people have been on this continent since the mid-1600s.  Time and again I'm tracing my family back to original European settlers along the St. Lawrence.  Many of the women who arrived in the 17th century were orphans, or as they were euphemistically called at the time, Les Filles de Roi - "Daughters of the King" (or in today's parlance, wards of the state).  I suspect that they were rather unceremoniously shipped out for a wild, unknown land and future (not a far cry from human trafficking, really). 

I'm just waiting for my family tree to circle all the way around.  Yep, I could very well have a matching ancestor 10 generations back on both my mother's AND my father's side.  New France in the 1660s was pretty small.....

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