The great logic puzzle of life: 09/18/18
Five years ago my mother's cousin created an online family tree for his piece of the family tree. It contains the family tree that I grew up hearing about plus some more recent discoveries. But it's very focused on those stories.
For the first four years I pretty much ignored the emailed updates from the site because it was just a digital version of the stories my grandmother told me.
In the meantime, my local library began subscribing to a version of the same website, giving me more access to records than I did as a member of the family tree. I started poking around and researching local historical figures. It was fun but it was also just a diversion.
Flash forward to last Thanksgiving. My mother-in-law had a question about her side of the tree. I knew I could look up some things via the library version but if I had full access I could start connecting the dots and building a tree for her (as well as my husband and our children).
And that's how I came to starting the Sammis family tree. I began with what I knew: my immediate family. Myself, my husband, our children, our parents, our siblings, their spouses, their children. And then I started copying over the Weber family tree.
After planting the tree with what I was sure about, I began to work on what I didn't know, namely my mother-in-law's father and grandfather. It took about six months flesh out her branch based on what she knew and what documents I could find that fit into the story as we knew it.
One of the early hiccups was being rushed and too trusting of the automated bits of the website. It's not that the database behind these trees creates incorrect links, it's rather that like a game of telephone where tiny errors snowball until the message is either garbled or completely changed.
Different branches have different puzzles. My husband's side of the tree is made up of long time residents from the earliest days of the colonies, combined in the last hundred and forty years, recent immigrants.
When there are personal, family stories — they are the best place to start. But keep in mind, that people like the embellish. People lie. And in the case of the census, enumerators make mistakes or they write down the version of things they think is the truth, even if it isn't.
The second weird thing about people is that they tend to clump. By family lore, my husband and I should have family trees that are rooted in specific places, with the movement to California being in the last century.
Flash forward to April. My mother asked a question about her grandmother's side of the family. Specifically she asked about one person who seemed to be the end of the paper trail. She wanted to see if I could connect our ancestor to the well known family of the same name (albeit different spelling).
Quite accidentally (I was looking for historic photos of people in the tree) I came across two should have been no-brainers, namely that the Internet Archive and Google Books both have scanned versions of genealogies written in the late 1800s. They were all the rage back then.
It was there that I found a genealogy of the Bemis family. While it didn't directly have our ancestor, it did have siblings that I had already had connected to him. But the book also contained three hundred pages of family information, much of what I had but tons that I didn't have.
From April until September of this year I transcribed the genealogy into my family tree. Of course I found errors, missing information and some other inconsistencies but it was still a huge resource both in terms of over all data and in better understanding the clumping in the five major branches of my tree.
I've found married cousins with in branches (no major surprise) as well as cousins across the branches. People who shouldn't have been related (per family lore — or rather a lack of lore) were in fact.
The online family tree site makes growing a tree easier by matching data from other family tree. Basically distant relatives can converge on a unified story of what happened by importing each other's data or clicking to verify already added data.
But careless clicking, especially easy in large, complex trees, can result in creating clones of people and from these clones, spawning branch after branch of duplicated data. Once I noticed that was happening, I started keeping a spreadsheet of big family names as they showed up in the major branches. Then if I found that name in another branch, I would stop what I was doing and search for the name. If I found it, I would verify the family information and then instruct the site to connect the two branches.
Now ten months later, my family tree which in April was at 1,500 people has now — mostly through the Bemis genealogy, expanded to twenty thousand.