Show Me Family: The Cloud of Ancestors

January 31st, 2014

Win a DNA test from Ancestry.com

So show me family, all the blood that I will bleed…

I belong to you, you belong to me. You’re my sweetheart.

Ho Hey’ by The Lumineers

The first time I saw my husband’s face was in a black and white photograph he sent me in the mail. He didn’t look like anybody I had ever known. He was very blonde then, and his hair was straight and long. He was just 32 in 1995, but his face already had deep lines around the mouth and  his eyes looked like they gazed out from an old soul. I thought if I ran into him on the street, I would know he was from the American South, or at least my romantic idea of it.

I showed my mom the photo of my new penpal. “He looks very Scandanavian,” she said, but what she thought was, that’s the father of my grandchildren. If she had spoken the words aloud, I’d have insisted  we were just friends, but I was already deeply preoccupied by our strange and sudden friendship, and it showed.

 ”What’s your background?” I asked him in my next email. Where have you come from? Where is this going? He responded that he didn’t know–his family had been in the United States for so long, he guessed they were just “American mutts.” That was so foreign to me. In Newfoundland, almost everybody’s ancestors came from the same southwest corners of Ireland and England. They came to the island to fish cod, and they pretty much stayed put for the next few hundred years. Even the accents stayed the same. They hadn’t melted into a new culture, so much as preserved an old one.

When my mother’s prophecy came true, and I had three children with my “just friend,” I became even more curious to know about Patrick’s ancestry. Sadly, his parents both died within a few short years of starting our family. Our link to the past consisted of a few old photographs, a couple of antiques, and an assortment of cherished family anecdotes that I learned to be grateful were told over and over again at Patrick’s family table. 

Enter the magical time travelling machine that is online genealogy. When I started building our combined family tree on Ancestry.com several years ago, one of the most gratifying experiences was how quickly I was able to extend Patrick’s branch through the research of others. I started with so little information, but a little was plenty. Hints started popping up, pointing me to other family trees and historical records that concerned a common ancestor. Not only could I suddenly fill in dates and names, but I found photographs of people we thought were lost to history. Images of gravestones we wouldn’t have known where to find. 

It’s hard to restrain myself from going over the top when I discuss digital genealogy, because it’s a very emotional experience to be on the receiving end of the generosity and labor of people who have chosen not just to trace their family history, but to share it. 

The smiling little girl in the top right hand corner of this photo is Patrick’s grandmother, whose chicken cornbread dressing recipe we make at Thanksgiving. Patrick had never seen a childhood photo of her before I found this on Ancestry.com, posted on the public member tree of someone who is descended from one of her sisters. 

grandmaelrod3

It wasn’t that long ago that these kinds of keepsakes would be jealously hoarded or accidentally lost, but now they can be shared across families. There’s plenty of pixels to go around (and in case you’re wondering about privacy, Ancestry.com does protect the identity of living people, even in publicly shared trees).

Patrick was right when he answered my question about his background. His family has been in America a long, long time. My boys’ seventh great grandfather, from whom they get their last name, was born in North Carolina in 1666. Another seventh great grandfather was born in Pennsylvania in 1720. Their fifth great-grandparents came to South Carolina from Europe a generation before the War of Independence. They have ancestors who were colonists, revolutionaries, Confederate rebels, Union soldiers, plantation owners, poor farmers, and pioneers. 

I know many of their names, where they were born, where they lived, who their neighbors were, where they are buried. I’ve traveled across time with them, learning the history of my adopted country along the way. Mornings after a late night research session, I’ll joke to Patrick that his dead relatives kept me up all night, but they are alive to me now. A cloud of ancestors, the communion of saints. I knock on the door with the census takers and I visit them in their homes. I see how their lives change and the land changes beneath them. I meet the children who are born, I mourn the ones who die, and I follow the ones who live, all the way to a young man in Arkansas who puts a photograph of himself into an envelope one day, and mails it to a girl, who studies it like a map. Where are we going?

I belong to you, you belong to me. You’re my sweetheart.


Ancestry.com is kindly sponsoring a series of posts on my incredible Ancestry journey. Leave a comment below to win an Ancestry DNA test (available to U.S. residents only at this time). Winner will be randomly selected on Friday, February 7 at noon CST (and congratulations to Meg, who won the one-year world explorer subscription to Ancestry.com in December’s giveaway)!

37 Responses to “Show Me Family: The Cloud of Ancestors”

  1. Melissa Mc says:

    Thanks to my Mormon-ness…we too have spent hours delving into the world of Family Search. Not soon after we moved here, Mike and I made a journey to NW Arkansas (Carroll Co) where my paternal grandparents are from…there we were able to find the ancestral cemetary, with headstones long erroded by time. But we were also able to see a picture of Judge Abraham Fanning on the county courthouse wall — my G-G-Great Paternal Grandfather. It was like looking into the eyes of a prophet — long gray beard, black robe, stern profile. It’s an amazing journey.

  2. Liz Owen says:

    I’ve done so much family tree stuff, but have always wanted to do the DNA test to fill in some blanks! :) This is my kind of giveaway.

  3. MW says:

    Things like this are bittersweet for me. I love genealogy, but being half-black means I can only go back so far. And that “so far” involves finding ancestors who were property, not people, in the eyes of the law.

    • MW, I hope to get into some of those issues a little bit in this series. Also, adoption, which isn’t the same at all, but often brings up complex feelings about heritage and family. Also, it’s so harrowing to come across documents related to enslaved people, as has happened to me a few times in the course of research. It takes the wind out of me. I understand that DNA technology is appealing to many people with African-American heritage because it does have the potential to get pick up where the paper record leaves off. Some powerful examples of this in the series Who Do You Think You Are.

      Here’s a little info from Ancestry.com’s blog on issues for African American genealogy. Hope it might inspire you to keep digging!
      http://blogs.ancestry.com/ancestry/2013/10/16/starting-african-american-family-history-research/

  4. Carmen Mosley-Sims says:

    My journey on ancestry.com has been so similar to yours, Kyran. I love reading about your discoveries and how excited and, yes, emotional you get over them. Reading between the lines on a blurry census record or handwritten will, and realizing that your fourth great grandfather fought for the North in the Civil War, or your fifth great-grandmother married your fifth great-grandfather after losing her previous family in some tragedy–these are emotional stories. They give us hints of where our names and family traditions come from. People make a big deal of being “Irish” or “German” or “having Native American blood,” and I understand why that piece of self discovery is interesting and important. But the tapestry of who we are us so much more than our nationality-by-proxy, and that’s why Ancestry.com has been such an uplifting discovery for me these past few years. I haven’t done the DNA bit yet, but I’ve seen you describe it, and I can’t wait to start opening those doors.

  5. Lela says:

    It’s all your fault, you annoying inspiration, you. I want to do it. When will I ever sleep?

  6. Shannan says:

    Not only would I like to know more about my mysterious family, but I’m not sure who my mother came from. She was illegally adopted and died before ever finding out.

    • I learned through a dna match that my adopted great grandmother was adopted within her biological family, as was common back then. There are other adoptions in my tree, though, and I’ve learned to honor them as part of my heritage. In fact, the process has prompted me to think more deeply about how we define heritage. Which is to say, there are different kinds, and there’s room to honor them all.

  7. Erin says:

    I was required to trace my heritage for a paper in Arkansas History and used Ancestry.com. At first I was annoyed because most of my family is not from Arkansas and I thought it was a pointless assignment, but almost immediately changed my mind. I was a poor college student at the time so I ended up just using the free trial, but I learned so much about my Maternal lineage during that time and was grateful to learn my roots. I would love to dig deeper and get
    more information about my Dad’s side now-I think DNA would help tremendously. Crossing my fingers.

  8. Josh ONeill says:

    I go into Ancestry in the past month and have been down the rabbit hole ever since. I found a photo of my great grandfather who got a license to fly hot air balloons in 1918, pretty cool

  9. marilee pittman says:

    The first time I ever used a compute I found the ship’s log which contained my mother’s grandparents who had emigrated from Kopenhagen in 1872.
    Kyran this is one of the best pieces you have ever written.

  10. Ashli Ahrens says:

    Thank you for this, Kyran. I’m fortunate to have grown up with stories and photos of my family on my mother’s side. My ancestors lived at Arkansas Post when it was THE Arkansas Post, the original settlement of the wild territory west of the Mississippi, long before Arkansas was ever a state. One of those ancestors was a Revolutionary War soldier and came to Arkansas from Monmouth County, New Jersey. It is through that ancestor, Joseph Stillwell, that my mother and I are members of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). I’ve known this particular story my whole life and I suppose I’ve been a bit lackadaisical about researching my family’s history since my Mom has a lot of it in her head and in copies of records. But that’s just one branch of my family’s tree. I should really take advantage of the technology that now exists to learn more, and also encourage my Mom to digitize the records and photographs she has to share with the rest of the internet world. I must put in a plug for the national DAR (NSDAR) library which has a wealth of ancestral information online and certainly in their vast library in Washington D.C. (http://www.dar.org). As it stands now, records in Ancestry.com aren’t enough by themselves to prove family lineage back to a Revolutionary War soldier enough for DAR membership, actual copies of birth, marriage and death certificates, and substantiation from public records are also required, but finding out that one HAS a Revolutionary War soldier through such sites is certainly a great way to know that membership is possible. Your sons would likely be eligible for membership in SAR, the Sons of the American Revolution (https://www.sar.org). Keep up the great work and outstanding posts.

  11. Shell says:

    I really want to get into this! So cool!

  12. Ida Darragh says:

    This is so fascinating, Kyran. I have not done this kind of research, but your work really stirs up an interest. I know nothing further back than my grandparents.

  13. Brad Sims says:

    Great stuff. Have you every gone down a branch and thought you had a whole line of people in your tree figured out, only to find a mistake in one of the records? Or found a mistake in a tree that someone else has researched and compiled? We’ve done that I couple of times. Kind of frustrating, but also kind of fun watching the mystery unfold.

    Carmen also once thought that her great grandfather might not have actually died when everyone thought he did, but rather left the family and started another family in Louisiana. That turned out to not be the case; too many people with the same names, similar dates and general location. But it was an interesting couple of days while the rest of her family discussed the possible scandal back and forth.

  14. All I know is that I am a mutt — I would love to figure out what my mix is. Awesome giveaway!

  15. Amy B. says:

    I’ve been wanting both Nick and I to have our DNA done, for no other reason than as a gift to our children. I have a feeling there will be nothing exciting or interesting or mysterious about the results — we are both 100% boring European Caucasian, I imagine. I think it would be nice to show the boys, though, that despite the apparent differences between the two sides of their family, there are way more similarities than they would guess.

  16. Gini Freemyer says:

    I know so little about my dad’s biological father’s family…or really my dad’s side at all. Stories I heard from my father are different from ones my uncle tells. I’d love to pin down the truth!

  17. Sewslo says:

    Would love to do this on my husband paternal side, Miller is a very common name and very hard to trace. Have info back as far as his great grandfather, but have hit a very, very hard brick wall.

  18. juliloquy says:

    I was in Peace Corps in Bulgaria. There was an small road in my town that gave me an eerie feeling every time I walked it–like my ancestors had been there before. They all came from northern Europe, but I suppose they had to have come out of Africa ages ago. Anyway, I would love to have more of their/my story. Thanks for the giveaway!

  19. Meg says:

    Please don’t enter me in the DNA giveaway since I already won such a great prize! My mom is enjoying the Ancestry.com subscription so much. Good thing she is planning to retire later this year so she can catch up on the lost sleep! So far, she has uncovered so many interesting tidbits. We were both distressed to find out that our family had slaves and, even worse, they were children. She quickly learned, however, that at least 2 individuals later owned their own farms as adults so that made us feel a bit better. I love the colonial time period and read a lot of biographies from that time. It is so interesting to think about what my relatives were doing then as I read. Thank you again for the fantastic Ancestry.com prize.

  20. Michael James Pollis says:

    Looking forward to a little DNA result. I have lots of hair on my head. Where did all that come from ?

  21. Gail Phillips Stone says:

    My Dad was a genealogy freak. Meeting anyone new, set him on a journey of discovery. Guess I was born to follow in his steps. History and genealogy are my hobbies. My lines have been easier to trace because Dad kept great records. I married a guy named Stone and I have come to believe his line hatched from a rock. I’m totally stuck in 1811. With a son’s DNA I may be able to travel more on that line. Would love to win that test.

  22. Ashley says:

    I spent almost a year researching our families. It was so rewarding to share with other family members. I would love the DNA test to learn even more!

  23. Elizabeth Clark says:

    So much for having a productive snow day in Arkansas! I’ve finally read this piece that grabbed my attention weeks ago. Now I’m dying to get on ancestry.com, etc. and get started. Will you come clean out my closets?

  24. Katelyn says:

    Not sure if this giveaway is still open, but I would love to win! Was just discussing with a distant cousin (who I met through ancestry.com) today how interesting it would be to take, and then came across this through The Happiest Home :) Enjoyed your post, agree with your sentiments completely!

  25. Faith says:

    Sounds fascinating! I would love to do the DNA test

  26. Clarissa Teff says:

    Do I just comment to enter? Would love to win!

  27. Heather Hope says:

    I’ve never known my ancestry (I’m also an “American mutt” ;) Would love to find out where I’m from!

  28. Davis says:

    I would love to win this if it’s still possible, thank you for your consideration!

  29. Kim Teff says:

    That sounds very interesting. Thanks for hosting the giveaway!

  30. Landon Perkins says:

    My wife sent this link to me, she is obsessed genealogy. Would love to win this for her!

  31. Steve says:

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve delved into my genealogy. Be cool to spur it along with a little help from DNA.

  32. Angie says:

    I love genealogy and I have ancestors who apparently did, too, as we have lots of recorded family histories and photographs. But I’d love to do the DNA test to go back further than just what I know of my Swedish heritage. I’ve loved following your ancestry journies!

  33. […] Ancestry.com is kindly sponsoring a series of posts on my incredible Ancestry journey. Leave a comment below to win a free 1-year World Explorer membership, valued at $299 (international entries welcome). Winner will be randomly selected on Friday, March 7 at noon CST (and congratulations to Brad, who won the DNA test from Ancestry.com in January’s giveaway)! […]

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