Getting Started

Vermont Poem Illustration

I am starting this genealogy blog to record my progress, to share my discoveries with relatives, and to share problems and strategies with other researchers. I also hope that writing about my thorniest problems will help me to think more clearly about them.

I did not begin researching until 2002, but from a very young age I was interested in the genealogy papers held in a large drawer in the hallway of my childhood home, a 1926 cottage style bungalow in Eagle Rock, part of the City of Los Angeles. The 1930 U.S. census shows a McMurray family living there, next door to newlyweds John and Carol (Henning) Steinbeck, neither of whom listed an occupation. By 1947 my maternal grandparents lived there with their three daughters, and in 1960 my parents bought the house. I was born in 1962.

The big drawer contained all sorts of yellowing papers pertaining to my New Jersey-born grandmother’s Dutch ancestors, my second great-grandfather Grover’s shoe company based in Lynn, Massachusetts, my father’s Thurber ancestry and a few scraps about other branches.  Mixed in were things like a charming little card (above) containing a poem about Vermont, my Dad’s home state, and a generic history of the Grover surname on onionskin with a gray backer.

Sometimes I would sort through these papers and try to draw one big tree containing all of my direct ancestors, not knowing there were nice printed charts I could have used, or that genealogy could be a career. I would wonder about the places named in the records—where is Tingwick, Quebec? Denby Dale, Yorkshire? I would wonder about the lives these people lived in between their births and deaths, and how a person named Dupuytren Vermilye got through life at all.

I did not think about my ancestors much between childhood and 2002. Occasionally when I was tired of whatever I was supposed to be reading at the College of the University of Chicago I spent precious library time looking at the records of Rehoboth, Mass., where the immigrant John Thurber had settled in about 1670.

After graduating in 1984 I moved to Boston, eventually living on Newbury Street, where almost every day for five years I walked past the New England Historic Genealogical Society building. Every time I passed it I thought “I should go in there sometime” but I never did. The entrance is much more welcoming now, but back then it seemed intimidating, and I wasn’t sure you could just walk in. To this day I don’t understand why I didn’t at least call to find out more about the organization.

I married my husband Chris Willis in 1990, and we had two sons by 1994. In 2002 our eldest was in 5th grade and had to do a family tree project for school. He cared less about this project—and  I cared more about it—than seemed reasonable, and I have been working on “it” ever since, almost every day, even on vacation.

Today after 15 years of research I know that a lot of what we put on the original project poster was wrong.  Some of the pedigrees in the drawer contained big mistakes, passed down lore turned out to be mixed up, exaggerated or just wrong, and assumptions I had made proved erroneous.  At one point in my debunking process my mother accused me of being “too scientific” in my research, and I tried to explain that if you are not “scientific,” you wind up with other people’s ancestors.

Though we have had to lop off some branches and cut out some drama, I have made hundreds of interesting discoveries, including direct connections to Jamestown, the Mayflower, Dutch Manhattan, the Salem Witch Trials, over 30 Revolutionary War soldiers (including a couple Loyalists), some 18th century swashbuckling New York City sea captains, early pioneers in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Texas, Civil War soldiers on both sides, and the first French settlers in Quebec.  Looking at collateral relatives—I try to research to the second cousin level—there are connections to the Gold Rush, the Mormon Trail, the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the Opium Wars.

Every once in a while I wonder if I am wasting an enormous amount of time on all this. Everyone needs a hobby, but maybe nobody needs an obsession unless it does some real good in the world.  But if there is one thing that is true about all of my close relatives alive today it is that we are people with obsessions.  Studebakers or Triumphs, orchids or wildflowers, horses or spiders, opera or jazz—every person in my family has at least two consuming passions. (My other one is habitat gardening). So maybe I can’t help it.

Also there is one personal (and maybe social) benefit to family history research that is often overlooked: You learn a tremendous amount of history, some incidentally, and some on purpose in order to understand people in the context of their time and place. And I believe you gain a much truer picture of social history than most people have, since their notions are typically formed by watching historically inaccurate movies, hearing persistently circulating myths, and accepting “facts” that fit with their pre-existing worldview while rejecting any contrary evidence.

We all do this last to some extent but good research depends on keeping an open mind to try to figure out what really happened. You are usually looking at original records left by real people, and though people sometimes lie or make mistakes, eventually you get a clearer picture of the past, at least in the regions you are studying.

And also family history research is mainly detective work, documenting lives and solving mysteries using evidence and logic, which must help to keep the mind in shape. So I am not going to try to get over my obsession, and I am excited about this blog.