Down the Rabbit Hole


May 11, 2020 by Jean

When my local Senior College cancelled the in-person courses due to begin in late March, I was left with a gap in my life. I had been preparing to teach a six-week course on perennial gardening, and I was also enrolled to take a course on American political history. The Senior College Board quickly rallied and put together a set of Zoom course offerings for spring, and I signed up for a six-week course called “Genealogy for Beginners.” I didn’t have any particular interest in genealogy, but I thought it would be a good way to exercise my brain and learn some new research skills. And I could also learn a little more about my family’s history.

Although the course was “for beginners,” it was quickly apparent that I was the only rank beginner in the Zoom room; everyone else had already done genealogical research. I found the first class, which focused on standards of evidence and documentation in genealogy, pretty boring. I told a friend that what I had learned was that I had no interest in the subject. But I also told her that, having made a commitment to the course, I would stick it out.

I’m glad I did stick it out. My interest was caught in the second week, when we learned how to search old census records. As a sociologist, I am very familiar with using aggregate data from the U.S. Census, but this was about going back to the original hand-written census forms filled out by enumerators as they walked around neighborhoods and talked to people. These individual records are kept confidential for 72 years and then made available to the public. This means that household records from 1790 through 1940 are currently available, and that the records from the 1950 census will be released in two years. The information about our households that we are now filling out online for the 2020 census will be made publicly available in 2092.

Sites like Ancestry and Family Search that give you access to census records also include birth and death records, so I decided to spend some time trying to fill in gaps in the recent history of my father’s family. I was quickly able to find Canadian census records documenting both my paternal grandparents as children and adolescents in 1881 and 1891, living in Quebec towns not far from one another. Then I looked for them in the U.S. census records for 1900-1940. These provided some information about when they married and immigrated and about the addition of children to their household. My father’s siblings had always been a bit of a mystery. We learned growing up that he was the youngest of thirteen children — but we only had six paternal aunts and uncles. We knew that one of his older brothers had died as a teenager in the 1920s, but little was known about the other five dead siblings. So far, I have been able to find birth and/or death records for four of the five.

Finding the records of my father’s family has been surprisingly difficult, given that they lived in one town (mostly in one house) from the time they immigrated in the late 1890s until the 1940s, when they moved one town over. But the English-speaking census workers who interviewed them and wrote down their answers and who transcribed those handwritten reports were not familiar with French-Canadian names. Their last name got transcribed with different spelling in each record, and the children’s first names often got misspelled, too. One baby is listed as “Mary Emeline” on her birth record and “Mary Amelia” eight days later on her death record – and with differently spelled last names on each record. First names also changed as the family became more Americanized. One of my uncles is “Joseph Robert N.” on his birth record; by the time he is a teenager, he shows up in the census as “Robert N.”; and by the time he is an adult, he has become “Robert Joseph” (which is how I knew him).

As anyone who has done it knows, genealogical research has a “down the rabbit hole” quality; you start off looking for one thing, but end up being pulled deeper and deeper or getting tempted off onto intriguing byways. One evening about 9:30 p.m., I decided to “check just one more thing” before I shut down my computer for the night; the next thing I knew, it was 1:00 a.m. When I couldn’t find census records for my grandparents by trying various possible misspellings of their last name, I spent hours scanning the handwritten records page by page until I found them. It was interesting to see that one of my grandmother’s younger sisters, a nineteen-year-old who had immigrated the year before, was living with them in 1910. Did she come down from Quebec to help her sister at the end of a decade in which my grandmother had given birth to eight children and seen four of them die? What happened to her after 1910? Did she stay in the United States or go back to Quebec? And who were those two sisters who were listed as “boarders” in my grandparents’ household in the 1920 census? A little digging (once I had decoded the misspelling of their last name) revealed that their mother had the same maiden name as my grandmother and their father was from the same Quebec town as my grandmother. Were these my grandmother’s nieces? My grandmother had a younger sister the same age as these girls’ mother, but with a different name. Was this the same person after she adopted a more “American” name (perhaps her middle name)? Or was this someone different, perhaps a cousin of my grandmother’s? Every time you find the answer to one of these questions, several more present themselves.

I don’t expect that I’ll ever become a passionate genealogist, but I am happy that I stuck with this course. I’ve been enjoying the detective work of learning more about my father’s family, and I imagine I will waste spend many more hours down the rabbit hole of genealogical research.

10 thoughts on “Down the Rabbit Hole

  1. Diana Studer says:

    It is a useful time to find a new interest that keeps you up till early morning. You are a lark, not an owl like me?
    I was expecting you to say – you were preparing your seniors course as a series of videos.

    • Jean says:

      Diana, I have been a lark as long as I can remember. At this time of year, as the sunrise gets earlier and earlier (now 5:30 a.m.), I start going to bed earlier so that I can get up at first light.

  2. Susan says:

    Before lockdown, I attended a conference for a Geneaological Society in the Black Belt of Alabama. One more thing that black people don’t have is an easy way to trace their ancestors. An organization called Coming to the Table (sponsored by the Center for Peace and Justice at Eastern Mennonite University) is helping descendants of enslaved people and descendants of slaveholders get together to search for the truth of their backgrounds and to try to begin to heal some of the horrendous harm from America’s original sin, upon which we were founded and upon which so much of our ideas about ourselves still are based. I got to meet an author named Sharon Leslie Morgan, who created a website called Black Ancestry. She collaborated on a fascinating book called COMING TO THE TABLE with Thomas DeWolf. She is African American, and DeWolf is a descendant of the largest slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history. Over a three year period, they travelled together, tracing their roots—overseas and through 27 states. The conference was really fascinating. Towns and cities can become part of the Coming to the Table initiative. I’m thinking of suggesting this to some people in Gettysburg, because it’s a creative way to get people interested in history to tackle issues of race and class.

    • Jean says:

      Sounds fascinating, Susan. I’ve been reading Lauret Savoy’s Traces and just finished a chapter about the erasure of African American history at “living history” sites.

  3. Joani says:

    Glad you stayed with it, Jean, and that you ended up enjoying it!

  4. Jean R. says:

    Down a rabbit hole is a wonderful description of doing genealogy research. I’ve been doing it off an on since my teens when I started out followed my mom around to different county records offices looking at old microfiche machines and writing for copies to out of state records. In the last 10 years I started picked it up again and was amazed at how much is online now. I was able to fill in all the missing pieces and self-publish great looking books—one for each side of my family. If you decide to put all your research in book form I can highly recommend

  5. Sue McPhee says:

    Great that you stuck with it! French Canadian ancestry research can certainly be a challenge, not just due to misspellings of names but, as you have probably bumped into, the addition of “dit” to names, further complicating the research.
    Keep at it. The results certainly inspire great stories. 🙂

    • Jean says:

      Sue, I am now skimming the ‘M’s in the index to Massachusetts birth records, trying to find the last of my father’s missing siblings.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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