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Posts from the ‘Heritage’ Category

Thoughts on the Greater Legacy of Humanity

History is not always pretty. Humanity is not always pretty. If you look deep enough into your family’s past, you will surely encounter some ugly memories that your ancestors would prefer you overlook and forget. But should you?

Yes, I know… We all want to be descended from royalty. We all want to believe that our family is cut from the finest of cloth, that our ancestors were kind, wealthy, generous, intelligent, hard-working examples of what all mankind should aspire to be. But were they? Perhaps better said… Were they all?

The fact of the matter is, you and I are connected to many tens of thousands, if not millions, of other people from the past who shared a very similar DNA. (See my article, The Math Behind a Family Tree .). The likelihood, therefore, is that somewhere in our past, we are all connected to someone famous. And it is just as likely that we are all connected to someone infamous.

My personal take on life is that there is a fine line between prince and pauper, oppressor and oppressed, benefactor and thief. And if our legacy as humans is that we are intimately connected to those who have come before us and contributed to our DNA, our looks, our personality traits, etc., then all of us have in our past opposing forces of good and evil, triumph and tribulation, success and failure.

Perhaps this is summed up best by the ancient Roman playwright, Publius Terentius Afer (known better in English as simply, Terence), who nearly two centuries before Christ, wrote the now famous words, “Nothing human is alien to me.”

As I read these words, in the context he portrayed them, I believe Terence was suggesting that we humans all have within us the power and the ability to commit the most heinous of acts; and that, likewise, we all have within us the power and ability to achieve magnificent things… The power and ability to kill, and to take from others that which is theirs… And the power and the ability to impart grace, forgiveness and love.

The more I look at the past and the nature of humanity, the more I understand my Christian faith and the magnificence of God's grace, without which we have nothing.

The more I look at the past and the nature of humanity, the more I understand my Christian faith and the magnificence of God’s grace, without which we have nothing.

It is with this in mind that I phrase the question again… While there might be some ugly memories that our ancestors would prefer us genealogists and family historians to overlook and forget, should we? Should we be revisionists when passing on our family histories? Should we sterilize the record to remove evidence of the likes of crime, alcoholism, adultery, discrimination and domination over others?

As I have researched my own family, I have discovered evidence of depression and alcoholism; and evidence of confident leadership and superb salesmanship. I have found cases of infidelity and even occasional bigamy; and yet many more cases of loving, lifelong partnerships. Within my family’s past were those who endorsed and participated in slavery; and, likewise, those who were disgusted by it and stood against it. There were those who were Viking plunderers; and those who were Puritan saints. In one branch of my family were ancient Irish ancestors who were enslaved and ultimately killed by their English oppressors; and in another branch, were the very same English who defeated them and took their lands. There were those who were brave colonists who carved a new and fruitful existence in what was then the wilderness of colonial Massachusetts; and there were those who displaced, and even killed, the Native American Indians who were there before them.

All of this is part of my legacy. (Somehow, I suspect it isn’t far removed from your own family’s legacy.) It is my personal belief that these opposing forces of good and evil, triumph and tribulation, success and failure, all need to be included in any complete and honest historical narrative of our families’ pasts. No, I am not suggesting we villainize those occasional unsavory souls who came before us. Nor am I suggesting we attempt to atone for their missteps or, for that matter, to whitewash over them for our own benefit. Rather, I am suggesting we look at history with objectivity and balance and that we celebrate the sum of who we are and the lessons that can be drawn from that.

I have often imagined what it would be like if I could assemble a thousand of my ancestors in one large room and ask them to share their best advice, their common legacy. Somehow, all these years after their passing, I suspect that they would want their descendants, with full awareness of their human faults and flaws, to rise up above those faults and flaws and make something better of themselves. Not just for those who are here now, but for those who will come after us… Indeed, for all of humanity. Perhaps this is the conversation I will someday have with my ancestors when I meet them in the “great beyond”… as we look down together on those who will yet continue to inherit the legacy I will leave behind.

Interestingly, the more I look at the past and the nature of humanity, the more I understand my Christian faith and the magnificence of God’s grace.

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Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “Thoughts on the Greater Legacy of Humanity”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog'”, posted May 5, 2013, (http://legacy-blog.com: accessed [access date]).

 

To Be or Not to Be… a Descendant of William Shakespeare

One recent evening, I was browsing my online family tree at Ancestry.com. I had just days earlier confirmed a connection that led me to being able to identify a tenth-great-grandfather on my mother’s side: John Hill, born in 1572, in Sommerset County, England. Having identified John Hill, my next mission was to see what other records might exist that could perhaps lead me to even older ancestors.

Anyone who is familiar with Ancestry.com can easily imagine what I did next… On my profile for John Hill, I clicked the folder tab titled “Hints”. (A “Hint” is a term Ancestry uses to refer to a promising lead that might help one identify additional family connections. Ancestry scans their databases for such leads and then passes them on as links to historical records or information submitted by other genealogists.)

Amongst the several hints that appeared for my John Hill, were some links to the family trees of other genealogists who also claimed to be descendants of John Hill. (Such leads can prove valuable, as someone else may have already discovered meaningful information about a common ancestor that you could, in turn, incorporate into your own family tree.)

As I scanned through several of these other genealogists’ family trees, I noticed something that most of their files had in common: they showed John Hill as being married to Susanna Shakespeare. Exploring this further, I clicked one link, and then another, and then I gasped in disbelief…

This Susanna Shakespeare was noted to have been the daughter of a William Shakespeare. “Nooo,” I thought to my self, could this be THE William Shakespeare??” Sure enough, he was: William Shakespeare, the famous English poet and playwright, born 449 years ago, in 1564! And if what I was seeing was correct, that would make William Shakespeare MY eleventh-great-grandfather!

“Wait until I tell my family!” I thought to myself (in proper Shakespearean English, no less).

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Armed with this new information, I did what any eager family historian would do… I searched for as many historical texts as I could find that might describe the personal life and the family of my new-found ancestor, William Shakespeare (information that would both validate this new discovery and, perhaps, lead to yet more family tree connections).

As I did so, one contradictory fact emerged that was nagging at my inner historian self. In my prior research, I had understood John Hill to have been a farmer; but all of the historical texts I was reading about William Shakespeare referred to his son-in-law, John Hill, as having been a prominent physician. Determined to resolve this discrepancy, I dug further and was surprised to find my ancestor’s life painted in a very different way than I had previously known.

My inner historian self still troubled, I returned to my prior research. Laying the conflicting information side by side, it was immediately apparent what I had done. My tenth-great-grandfather, John Hill, was indeed a farmer, a simple man and a Puritan. John HALL, on the other hand, was a prominent English physician. And yes, it was John HALL, not my ancestor, who married William Shakespeare’s daughter.

Frustrated and angry, I slammed the palms of my hands down on my desk. Mind you, I was not angry at learning that I was not descended from William Shakespeare. Rather, I was angry at myself for having made such a simple mistake. With all my experience, how could I have let myself get drawn down this erroneous path?! Of course, it then occurred to me that I was not alone in my error. After all, numerous other genealogists commingled the identities of John Hill and John Hall and included the Shakespeares in their online family trees. (More than half of those researching John Hill on Ancestry.com had done so!)

An Analysis of the Problem

Personally, I am a big fan of Ancestry’s “hint” system. Through their hints, I have found some remarkable information that I might otherwise never have known about. That said, I nonetheless caution people to look very closely at every hint before accepting it as fact and incorporating it into one’s own family tree. (On average, I estimate that I have rejected about 75% of such hints as being inaccurate or not applying to my family.)

One shortcoming of Ancestry’s hints is that they will include records for individuals with similar names. Interestingly, this is also a strength of their hint system. (Every genealogist has encountered documents with misspelled names. For that matter, people, and sometimes entire families, have themselves changed the spelling of their names over the years. So it helps to be openminded to name variations.) My mistake, in this case, was that I scanned over the hints so quickly that I didn’t even notice the difference in spelling.

More than simply missing a different spelling of my ancestor’s last name, however, I also neglected to thoughtfully analyze other conflicting information. Had I done so, I would have noticed more quickly the different professions of the similarly named men. And I would have realized that the timeframe of the supposed marriage to Susanna Shakespeare was not logical, given the dates of birth of John Hill’s known children. Instead, I seized on the excitement of thinking that I might be related to William Shakespeare; and, albeit it only temporarily, I accepted the findings of other genealogists without first reviewing their sources with a critical eye.

Conclusion

I think it was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.” (He was so ahead of his time!) This is especially the case with genealogy.

Mind you, I am not suggesting that internet-based research be avoided. Quite the contrary, I am a big fan of the internet! It has facilitated the sharing of information like mankind has never known before; and this sharing of information has led many a genealogist to discover meaningful legacies! (As a personal example… While I might have been disappointed to learn that I am not a descendant of William Shakespeare, through the internet I was able to discover — and verify — a connection with another tenth-great-grandfather, George Calvert, First Lord Baron Baltimore.)

Nonetheless, genealogists have a responsibility to themselves, and to the genealogy community overall, to include citations on all information they publish online. And genealogists, likewise, need to be diligent in reviewing and verifying the sources cited by others, lest they make the mistake that I did and accept as fact something that is far from it.

As William Shakespeare himself said, “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.”

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Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “To Be or Not to Be… a Descendant of William Shakespeare”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog'”, posted May 3, 2013, (http://legacy-blog.com: accessed [access date]).

 

How to Protect and Preserve Your Genealogical Research after Your OWN Death

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To an outsider, genealogy must seem like an inherently morbid pastime. After all, genealogists are obsessed with death records, obituaries, cemeteries, gravestones, estate documents, inheritances, eulogies, death masks, etc., etc.

The truth of the matter is, any form of historical research is a backwards-looking exercise designed to understand and document the past. And yes, death records, obituaries and the like can provide valuable clues in such research. But as a historian and genealogist, have you considered your own demise? Will your own descendants someday have a difficult time piecing together the details of your life because you spent so much time researching and documenting the lives of your ancestors that you forgot to document your own life story? And what of all your research… all the years and decades you spent uncovering your family’s past… all the records you have accumulated… all the old photographs you have discovered… all the boxes of priceless information you have saved??? What will happen to these valued possessions after you are gone?

Following are some thoughts to consider.

Value is Subjective

As a genealogist and family historian, my research files, antique photographs and old family artifacts are some of my most valued possessions. Sadly, though, I have come to learn that not everyone places a similar value on such things.

Years ago, for example, I was saddened to learn that a distant cousin, who had been in possession of some old family photo albums that dated back to the early 1800s, had given away some of these albums to friends. Worse yet, he gave them away to friends as gag gifts when they turned 50 (joking that his friends were becoming as old and antique as the photos in the albums)! Upon learning this, I was horrified at the thought of having forever lost some priceless photos that were of common ancestors I share with this cousin.

In another line of my family, after the death of one of my great-great grandfathers in 1875, his widow turned to her brother for help in managing the family’s extensive land holdings and businesses. In an effort to organize and “simplify” life for his sister, this well-intentioned brother destroyed by fire generations of old family records that he deemed to be of no more value. Gone forever was valuable evidence of the family’s past in Ireland and of all that my great-great grandfather and his father before him had done to build a working plantation on thousands of acres in Maryland.

The moral of this story is to make sure that others understand the value you place on your genealogy and historical records and to take proactive steps to preserve them before they meet a similar fate at the hands of a family member who simply sees them as redundant and useless records of the past.

Focus on Preserving a Legacy

One way to improve the odds that your research materials will survive is to change the focus of your research. The reason many family members see genealogy as boring is because family group sheets, pedigree charts, birth certificates and death certificates ARE boring. And if such things are the bulk of what you have to show for your genealogy hobby, you run the risk that someone else will see them as no different than your completed sudoku and crossword puzzles. If you really want others to see value in your research efforts, you need to bring your research to life. This means that you need to flesh out the details of not just when your ancestors were born and when they died, but how the lived, why they made the decisions they did, what their beliefs and values were, etc. These are the things that make one’s ancestry a heritage or a legacy. Most people want to understand why they have the traits they do, why they look and act the way the do; and a historian who is able to unlock these secrets from the past stands a much greater chance that his or her research will survive the test of time.

Publish Your Results

Most cities and states have historical societies (following is a good list of some of the better known ones: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_historical_societies). Many also have genealogical societies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genealogical_societies). There are, likewise, many national historical and genealogical societies, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). Most of these societies typically publish monthly or quarterly journals; and they welcome submissions for publication that are well researched, well documented and of interest to the focus of their organizations. I should add, getting published in such a journal doesn’t require having a famous ancestor that you can write about. Rather, it requires a focus on historical accuracy and being able to share information on how residents, famous or not, lived in historical times in those communities that are the focus of the historical society in question. Again, this is the difference between simple dates of birth and death and a historical narrative that constitutes a legacy. In any case, getting published is a way to preserve the results of your research (as historical and genealogical societies maintain libraries and are passionate about their preservation efforts).

Donate Work of Historical Value to a Library

Depending on the scope and focus of your research collection, some libraries might be interested in accepting your work into their permanent collection. Historical and genealogical societies are typically more interested in historical works than a municipal library, but there are a number of local libraries that do maintain historical archives. Certain college and university libraries may also be interested. There are two important points to remember, however, when attempting to donate your research to a library. First, above all else, be aware that most libraries want organized, bound volumes that are well documented and likely to be of value to their members. (i.e., Don’t expect a library to be interested in a box of disorganized, uncatalogued papers, especially if they are merely family group sheets, pedigree charts and other personal notes.) Secondly, if your goal is entrust your research work to a library, you might find that it is necessary to break your collection into smaller parts and to spread those parts amongst different libraries. (i.e., The New England Historic Genealogical Society might be interested in artifacts and historical writings on your colonial Massachusetts ancestors, but they are less likely to be interested in information on your pioneer ancestors who settled in Oklahoma.)

Identify a Family Successor

Of course, even if you happen to donate copies of some of your materials to a historical library, if you are like most genealogists, you are hoping a member of your own family will volunteer to someday takeover your materials and continue on with your research where you leave off. If your goal truly is the preservation of your materials, however, this is not something you want to leave to chance after your death.

My suggestion would be to instead emulate what some of the best run corporations do. That may seem like an odd comment on the surface; but keep in mind that well-run companies are interested in preserving their corporate culture into infinity. And the leadership of such well-run corporations typically places the responsibility of succession on their own executives. That is to say, before someone can be promoted to the next level, managers of well-run corporations are expected to identify someone whom they feel would be an appropriate successor to take over their job.

In a similar manner, my suggestion to genealogists is that you proactively identify someone who would be both capable AND proud to take on your materials and work. As a word of caution, however, don’t assume that this individual will necessarily be one of your own children. It is natural to want to pass on old photographs and family artifacts to your own offspring; but doing so runs the risk that these artifacts won’t be safeguarded to your standards or, worse yet, that they would be passed on to yet other heirs who don’t value them at all. My challenge to you would be to instead find someone who shares your passion with history. Interestingly, this shouldn’t be as hard as it sounds. After all, similar personality traits typically do appear in families across multiple generations. Most often, though, they seem to appear in a cross-step fashion to nieces, nephews, and children of cousins.

Pass Materials on Before Your Demise

Regardless of who you identify as an appropriate successor to your materials and work, however, it is important to either pass these materials on before your ultimate demise or to make sure that this individual AND your immediate family members are in agreement as to what you wish to take place AFTER your death. And keep in mind that this isn’t just a matter of passing on the ubiquitous boxes that we genealogist all have. If you have electronic files, you need to plan for those as well. This will require passing on copies of those (hopefully organized) electronic files AND making sure that your successor also has access to your genealogy websites and online profiles and family trees. (i.e., Make sure that your successor knows of such online sites AND has the required passwords to take them over and maintain them!)

Disseminate Select Copies of Materials to all Family Members

If you are in agreement with me that passing on a legacy is more than simply passing on a list of who begat whom, then you will surely see the value in passing on multiple copies of your work. Today, there are so many options available for printing bound copies of photo books, genealogy books and other printed materials. Simply put, if it’s worth knowing, it’s worth printing and sharing. And if cost is a hindrance, don’t hesitate to seek donations, where appropriate, from other family members.

Don’t Overlook Your Own Story

Lastly, I encourage you to not overlook your own life story. If you are like me, you have struggled for years to put together some kind of understanding of who your ancestors were, how they lived, and what they believed. Would this task not have been easier if our ancestors had left us more information in their own words? Don’t leave your descendants in the dark about your own life. Write it down; and pass it on!

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Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “How to Protect and Preserve Your Genealogy after Your OWN Death”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog'”, posted April 28, 2013, (http://legacy-blog.com: accessed [access date]).

 

What Is a Legacy?

Legacy: It comes in all shapes and sizes, all colors and creeds. It begs to be discovered. It cries to be preserved.

Simply put, a legacy is something passed down from the past by one’s predecessors or ancestors. It can come in the form of money; or it can come in the form of heritage — cultural identity, personal character, purpose of life. It molds our beliefs. It shapes our values. It lends meaning to who we are and what we, in turn, pass on to others.

Until it is forgotten.

It has been argued that many of our society’s ills stem from a loss of connection to our past. Families have grown apart. Entire communities have forgotten the trials and tribulations of their predecessors. Ideals our ancestors once risked their lives to achieve and protect seem to have become distant memories.

Of course, this loss of a connection to our past is not a new phenomena. After all, it was 108 years ago, in 1905, that philosopher George Santayana penned his now famous words: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In my own life, my personal journey to discover the past began 33 years ago, at the age of 14. At the time, I was desperate to learn more about my grandfather, who had died 4 years earlier. I missed him terribly; and I longed for an opportunity to speak with him… to hear him tell me in his words why he believed what he did, why he had made the life decisions that he did. I sensed that my grandfather had a legacy waiting for me to piece together; and so, I began my search for the pieces to his “puzzle”.

I am pleased to report that this puzzle has taken shape far beyond anything I imagined at age 14. I have learned an enormous amount of information not only about about my grandfather, but about his own “grandfathers” before him. I feel a connection with my family’s past that, in so many ways, defines and explains who I am today.

Of course, I too will someday be gone. My challenge, therefore, is to preserve the legacy I have discovered and to pass it on to those who will come even after me. For the most part, I do this through writing historical narratives and short stories. My dream is to someday be able to write a novel on the scale of Alex Haley’s “Roots”; but, at the moment, this seems like an overwhelming task.

Over the years, as I have shared some of the family legacy I have learned, many have asked me for advice on how they can research and document their own family’s story. A common refrain I hear is that the idea of simply beginning a family tree seems as overwhelming a task as writing a Roots-like novel is for me. Many have the desire, but few know how to even begin.

It is for these individuals that I have decided to begin this Legacy Blog. Over time, I will share here some of the tips and insights I have learned over the years that other genealogists and family historians might benefit from. And yes, I will share some snippets of my writings that might inspire others to do the same. That, after all, is a part of what legacy is… a passing on of insights and life lessons that inspire thought and add meaning to life… sometimes practical… sometimes poetic… sometimes both.

I will close with some fitting words by well-read author, Erma Bombeck: “The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another’s desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together.”

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Suggested format for citations of this article:
Tormey, Michael. “What Is a Legacy?”, “Michael Tormey’s ‘Legacy Blog'”, posted April 24, 2013, (http://legacy-blog.com: accessed [access date]).