Wednesday, February 10, 2010

It's no surprise, having majored in Classics and Art History, that I am interested in the past. Two years ago I started looking into my family tree, and that of Husband.

I love genealogy and the stories of who we came from and how. Not just my family, but anybody's. I want to know about your great-grandparents and how they left Ireland/Poland/Mexico to come to America. I've just finished watching the first episode of Faces of America, another wonderful Henry Louis Gates special on PBS. This time he's looking into the roots of Americans whose ancestors came to the US for various reasons. He discussed how Kristi Yamaguchi's mother was born in a relocation camp at the same time her grandfather was fighting for the US. And how Mike Nichols' family escaped Nazi Germany just in time to avoid the Holocaust.

My own family story is rather tame. On my father's side we come from French Basque people, mostly in and around the village of Pau (known now mainly for being a stop on the Tour de France). On my mother's side we're originally from Scotland and then from Canada....but I've hit a dead end and cannot seem to go any further. I'm hampered by the fact that the ancestor who left Scotland was named John Campbell -- and it seems every other man in Scotland at the time was named John Campbell. Her mother's family is also a dead end. I can get back to my great-grandparents, but no further.

But, alas, no Charlemagne. No Henry VIII. No royalty or riches. I don't even have any good outlaws. My maternal grandfather did make illegal beer during Prohibition, but that's about the only black sheep I can find. And the only real interesting story is that my paternal grandmother and her family lived through the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake. She was 9 at the time and remembered it clearly. It knocked her out of bed. She lined up in the park for bread. But family stories weren't tossed around the dinner table, unfortunately, and so I knew little about where I came from. Research through various online ancestry websites have helped, as has some documents that come from distant cousins still living in Pau. Those documents get my father's family back to the 1600s, but I must confess to having my doubts as to their accuracy. According to their research, everyone in my family lived to be 80 or 90, which is hard to believe since longevity wasn't one of the hallmarks of the 17th century.

Husband's family is in many ways more interesting. He is African American and we've been able to get back to his slave ancestors. Of course, it's almost impossible to go farther back than that. We're fortunate in that the family who owned his many-times-great grandfather (and I can't believe someone once "owned" his relations) was prominent in the county and there's a lot of information about them. Husband has always been curious about his identity so last year for his birthday I gave him a DNA test to help give him more information about his history.

I find it hard to grasp the reality that there is slavery in his past. It's even harder to accept the more recent racism. The fact that his grandmother, one of the most beautiful and admirable women I've ever known, had to ride in the back of the bus just burns me. This is my family, the people that I love, and yet at one point they were discriminated against, hated and, most unbelievable of all, owned.

So my sheep-herding Basque ancestors had the easy life. But dull. And I have to admit, if there were going to do a PBS special on my family, nobody would watch. Including, truth be told, me.


Scot said...

John or James Campbell would definitely be extremely popular names in Scotland.

One piece of information I found useful was that Scottish families tended to stick to specific naming patterns. For example, the first son would be named after the father’s father, the second son was named after the mother’s father etc.

If you could find some unusual first name in the family you have identified then this might help you to track down your Scottish Campbell ancestors.

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

Personally, I find the more obscure folks in my ancestor at least as interesting as any royalty or famous ones. What kept them going? Why did they move hundreds of miles to a new farm? Why did some children seek a college education and others not?

Keep these ancestor stories coming!

Bill ;-)
Author of "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories"

Duke said...

After many years of delving into my ancestry I found it oddly unsatisfying. Past a certin point all I got were census records, immigration lists, marriage & death records, and other specific pieces of paper with names on them. I could fabricate a tree of names but is that interesting? Not to me. As you say, the interest lies in who these people were. What they looked like. Why they moved. The motivations behind the actions.

None of which you can get researching old records.

The only real, and worthwhile, genealogy to me is from actual ancestors. If each of my ancestors had written down the important and interesting things in thier life so I could glance back at 500 years of history it would be fantasstic. Unfortunately none of them did. All I have are endless lists of who married who, the kids they had, where they lived, and when they died.

There's some importantance in data like that I suppose but wasn't what I'm interested in. I'd like details but as my ancestors died they took the details with them.

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

May I suggest you have not dug deeply enough? The social history of the area provides extensive detail of your ancestor. And, in most cased, local newspapers, journals, county histories, etc., actually have stories of your individual ancestors that tell you much about them. Sometimes, you even find direct quotes of what they said... even in the very early years. It takes searching, but much is out there.

Bill ;-)