NEW YORK — How much do you know about your family tree? For many folks, it’s not very much. A recent survey finds that a third of Americans can’t even name all four of their grandparents, incredibly.
While DNA kits that trace one’s ancestry have surged in popularity over the years, there are still plenty of people who don’t seem to care too much about where they came from. The survey of 2,000 Americans showed that a third of respondents struggled to climb the branches of their family tree beyond their grandparents.
One in five couldn’t even name one of their great-grandparents.
“In recent decades, we’ve seen a major upswing in interest when it comes to researching family history, and this is largely due to the accessibility of historical information,” says Jennifer Utley, Director of Research at Ancestry.com, which commissioned the survey, in a statement. “This valuable historical data is helping people paint a picture of their past.”
It wasn’t just names of relatives that respondents failed to come up with either. A fifth didn’t know the city that any of their grandparents were born in, and 14 percent had no idea what their grandparents even did for a living.
On the bright side, many participants have put in the time and effort to learn about their background. Half of those surveyed say they’ve researched their heritage be it through family tree books, official records, or using an online service. Six out of ten also are aware of the country their last name comes from, and 65 percent were able to name the country or countries their relatives came to America from.
Thankfully, most do wish they knew more: eight in ten say they care about their family history and feel it’s important to find out where they came from. Utley says it’s easier than it seems, it just requires a little bit of work and outreach.
“Most family history research starts with oral history, listening to the stories passed down from generation to generation,” she says. “Conversations during holiday gatherings can help us discover more than just what country our relatives migrated from, but also who they were as individuals – their stories, their dreams and lessons learned.”
As for what kind of information participants said they’d like to learn from their grandparents or great-grandparents, 72 percent were interested in hearing stories of them from when they were young, 62 percent wanted to know where their family came from, and half simply wanted some life advice.
Interestingly, only 40 percent of respondents were interested in their grandparents’ medical history. Just 37 percent cared about the work their grandparents did, and slightly less (36 percent) wanted to hear about the best places they’d traveled to in their lives.
The survey was conducted by OnePoll in December 2018.
Pictures have a way of inspiring my writing and this one, in particular, speaks volumes.
This is whatthe artist, Nyree Reynolds, says about her wonderful painting.
This little 4-year-old boy was sent out from England to Australia to help populate Australia. The little ones that arrived had to walk around picking up twigs for the cooking stoves. It was very sad for these children to have to leave their families. The British and Australian government told lies to their families that they would see their kids again. Many of them didn’t.
She has beautifully illustrated a very sad point in Australian history. She has also revealed the tragedy that occurs when a child has to grow up without roots. An example closer to home is what happened to many of our Native American children who were removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools to be assimilated into mainstream society.
When a child has been removed from their home and family or moved from place to place for a long period of time, they lose their sense of self. This is even more apparent when a child comes from a multicultural/multiracial background.
So, in order to find some sense of who they are, they try on different personas. I have seen this multiple times in the children I’ve taught. I watch as they attempt to fit into one place and then another and finally sometimes settle on being a loner not fitting in anywhere.
That is the biggest travesty of all. For when a person finds out about their family roots and traditions and the hardships their ancestors had to overcome, they come to realize those same characteristics; strength, hope, resiliency, intuitiveness, and creativity, are a part of their makeup as well.
They can also grow to appreciate their family members who are still alive and can share their memories of their journey through life. This is the biggest blessing of all.
So, I’d like to encourage you to start looking for your roots and appreciate the older family members who are a wealth spring of information and insight.
Sometimes events happen in life that forces us to remember. We go about our busy lives – taking kids to soccer and football, or picking up grandchildren (depending on your phase of life) and trying to fit exercise into our schedule and then bam! Something happens and we are forced into remembering our ancestors – those who have gone before us or even those we have had lifelong relationships that have passed. That happened to me this week.
When my mom called to tell me my Aunt Linda had passed away I wasn’t surprised. She really hasn’t been with us for several years. Her mind has been trapped by dementia and the lively, kind sometimes sassy aunt I adored just wasn’t herself for so very long. But at the news of her passing I was surprised by the sadness I felt, but also the happiness as my memories of her came flooding back. I talked to my husband about it, who hadn’t really known my aunt when she was healthy, I talked to my kids, because they knew how much I loved her, but the true remembering didn’t come until I talked to my sister. We talked for a long time about close experiences we each had with her and how thankful we were for parents who gave us opportunities to love our aunts and uncles even though we love and miss them when they are gone. But the most important part of our talk was, you guessed it, the remembering.
For the past few nights since her death, as I’ve tried to find sleep I remember her. The way she smelled (of some kind of floral lotion she wore), the way she looked (always beautiful – perfect makeup and hair) and the way she sounded (she was from Texas and her southern drawl was both appealing and comforting.) She could shop like no other and put on a “supper” spread that would make anyone hungry. Those memories are sweet to me and I feel the need to capture them. But remembering her late at night isn’t enough. I need to document her life – remember her with purpose. How? Write it down! Journal it! Record her life story somewhere so other people can enjoy it. That is the true power in remembering.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how important it is to teach our children to remember who they are. (Read it here.) But why is it important for adults to remember our family history and stories? I have a few ideas.
Remembering ancestors gives us confidence.
Everyone deserves to be remembered.
It brings us closer to our living and dead relatives.
It helps us understand who we are.
Uncovering the mysteries of our ancestors keeps our minds sharp and it is fun!
1. Remembering ancestors gives us confidence.
I have done quite a bit of research as to why telling our children their family stories gives them confidence and it only makes sense it does the same for us as adults. How many of your great-grandparents can you name? Do you know a story for each? Discovering those stories can be somewhat of a miracle in our lives. The other day my husband made a huge discovery with his family history, finding an ancestor that fought in the Revolutionary War directly with George Washington. Wow! No matter how distant that relative is, how can you not feel good about yourself knowing someone with your blood rubbed elbows with George Washington? Professional genealogist, Jacqueline Kirk, said she got “hooked” on genealogy when she found a census record from the UK 1901 census. She learned new skills and found she had a talent for the work. “When my husband died family history gave me an escape from grief. I have made so many friends in the family history world and at a time when my confidence was low family history research restored my self-esteem. I owe it a lot,” she said.
It seems the confidence that comes from remembering is two-pronged: Yes, finding family stories takes time and energy, but once a project is completed it is something to be proud of. That gives us confidence. Also, learning the amazing stories of our families can fortify us to combat hard things. The video below by Sheri Dew speaks to that point.
2. Everyone deserves to be remembered.
At RootsTech this past year one of the quotes that stood out to me the most came from FamilySearch CEO, Steve Rockwood: “Everyone deserves to be remembered.” As he said it you could hear a collective intake of breath around the room. Such a simple thought, but so profound. Yes, everyone does deserve to be remembered. I was working on a project earlier this year trying to piece some sort of story together from a gentleman’s family during Civil War times. As I was looking at the lists of names and dates a semblance of a life well-lived started to come together. Until that project, he was a name on a census. With some diligent digging, he emerged as a Civil War Veteran who traveled back and forth between his home and the battlefield. He was remembered. And he more than deserved it.
Family historian, Liz Gauffreau, started researching her maternal grandmother’s education after being inspired by a photograph of her university days during World War I. Now she feels a kinship to her that she didn’t have when she was alive. “What means the most to me is that I’ve been able to show this side of her through my blog. She was such a private person that the family sold her short,” she said. She deserved to be remembered and Liz did it right.
3. It brings us closer to our relatives – both living and dead.
It’s no secret that remembering brings us closer to our relatives who have gone before, but what about those still alive? About 20 years ago my husband and I did a project where we interviewed every family member on my mother’s side from my grandma and grandpa right down to my youngest cousin. We had dozens of videotapes chronicling all the memories shared. Last year we digitized them and shared them on our family Facebook page just a week before our family reunion. The reaction was something special. My cousin Chris Ellis wrote, “I love this so much. Thank you, Matt and Rachel, for this. It is really emotional for me to hear Grandpa and Grandma voices and the stories. That is shorthand for it made me cry… and laugh, and made me happy.” His was one of many echoing the same sentiment. Our family had this moment of closeness because we all remembered together.
I think for many of us who remember our ancestors through genealogy or story writing we feel a tug of the divine as we do the work. I am a firm believer those ancestors are close by helping us find their dates and their stories. That spark keeps us going in the work and we feel a sense of closeness that is hard to describe to others until we experience it ourselves. The phrase “angels among us” comes to mind. My writing partner, Rhonda Lauritzen, had one of those moments and writes about it in detail here. She talked about waking with a start at 3 a.m. Instead of lying awake in bed, she decided to get up and do some work. She started to peruse the Utah Genealogical Society newsletter and ran across a story that loosely related to an ancestor’s story she and her brother had spoken about the day before. She emailed it to him with a quick note: “I thought I’d forward in light of our conversation yesterday.’ A few hours later, Matthew emails me back and says, ‘Very Interesting, Rhonda. Look at the last full paragraph on page two. The Indian girl, Waddie, is the exact girl I was reading about and mentioned to you.’” Rhonda said,
“The hairs on my arm prickle, as though I was awakened at 3 a.m. to find this story. As though the story wants to be known.”
Rhonda wondered if the Native American woman in the story, Nellie Leithead Justet, wanted to be remembered.
4. It helps us understand who we are.
As adults, although we don’t always like to admit it out loud, we feel a little lost at times. We wonder what our purpose is or if we are doing it right. My oldest child is 23 and I am still waiting to feel like a “grown-up” myself! Remembering our family gives us purpose and helps us understand who we are.
Diane Lund belongs to the Geneablogger’s Tribe and found an interesting sense of belonging in doing some family history research.
“I started researching after I found a purple velvet cover photo album with photos from the mid 19th century. It belonged to my grandmother. I only recognized a couple of people, so I started to look for any writing or clues in the photos. There were a few pictures that were taken in Rome – odd, since my grandmother was from Pennsylvania. My brother was able to identify the photographer was the official Vatican photographer. One of the photos was my great grandmother’s brother, John, who was sent to Rome to study and who became a Catholic priest. I found the marriage record for my great grandparents, Ida and Charles, and Fr. John was the officiant. It means a little more to me because my uncle was a Catholic priest and was the officiant at my parents’ and my sister’s wedding and my brother is a Catholic priest and he was the officiant at my wedding.”
For Diane and so many others, finding a link or connection to an ancestor we have something in common with gives us a greater sense of self. Seeing old photos and seeing family resemblances is only the beginning of the commonalities that link our families together. DNA is helping people make breakthrough discoveries about themselves and others. I loved what renowned DNA expert CeCe Moore had to say at RootsTech in 2017. In her keynote address, CeCe noted that DNA helps human beings connect – something we all long for. “It’s providing answers to hundreds of thousands – maybe even millions of people,” she said. One of the most important things she’s learned is how strong biological bonds are. She doesn’t want to push aside nurturing, but has found that our ancestors live on through us and that nature has a “profound effect on who we are.” DNA helps genealogists find out everything they can, not just what appears on a chart. Read more about DNA and connections here.
5. Uncovering the mysteries of our ancestors keeps our minds sharp and it is fun!
I was talking to my aunt recently about why she loves family history and she said, “I feel like I’m an investigator putting together an important puzzle.” And she’s right. Family history and trying to find the stories so we can remember keeps us thinking and keeps our minds sharp. Remembering isn’t about living in the past it’s about giving meaning to lives well-lived so we can have one of those well-lived lives ourselves. Unlocking and discovering our ancestors keeps us on our toes in a new and interesting way. Last summer I was looking for some photos of my great-grandmother on FamilySearch. I was shocked to find a large downloaded history that I didn’t know existed. After all, only my grandfather and his descendants knew the history, right? Wrong. This relative wrote these words: “I hope that someone will come along that has the talent of writing to write this better than I can. For now here is the history.” I believe she wrote those words for me over 20 years ago. Now I need to get to work to write the history into story form. I’m glad she was looking out for me to keep my mind sharp and help me to remember.
I hope that one day I will be that helpful for someone else. We find connections to places and events through remembering family stories the provide deep and abiding spiritual and personal connections. The hard life stories of our ancestors make us stronger as well. Please enjoy a few related to articles to the place, history and overcoming obstacles that make remembering all the more important.
At the end of all the remembering it does us no good if we don’t either record it orally or write it down. One of the best things that can be done is to create a story that can be cherished for generations. Here are a few tips to get the ball rolling.
Whatever way you enjoy uncovering the family history and telling family stories, the key is to do it now and it will be enough. Pick a category of family history to work on and get started. We would love to hear your feedback on why you love to remember! Please share a few ideas and stories of your own remembering journey!
Rachel J. Trotter is a senior writer/editor at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. She tells people’s stories and shares hers to encourage others. She loves family storytelling. A graduate of Weber State University, she has had articles featured on LDSLiving.com and Mormon.org. She and her husband Mat have six children and live on the East Bench in Ogden, Utah.