Tracking Your Past

Doris Green

Even when we work in isolation, we do not work alone. Collaborators play many roles. Archive staff, museum volunteers and historical society researchers point us to new leads. Older family members pass along stories seldom heard and incidents all but forgotten. Younger family members ask about the identity of our ancestors and how they are connected. Fellow genealogists critique our writing and question our conclusions.

Year-end presents a celebratory time to recognize others’ input to our family history projects. You may want to list these contributors in a journal. Or you might send them a holiday card or thank them in person.

Our ancestors themselves speak from their graves, sometimes seeming to direct our search. Their notes made in an exquisite hand on the first pages of the family Bible, a Depression-era recipe or a rediscovered cemetery marker may signal a way forward. Suddenly you see a path over or under or even through a genealogy brick wall. We may acknowledge their contribution in the text of an ancestor biography or with a footnote. Or we may simply smile and wave to them over the distance of the generations.

If you are lucky enough to participate in a small group of supportive genealogists, your work benefits from their tough questions and honest readings of your projects. They’ll tell you when what you’ve written makes no sense or doesn’t draw them into the narrative. They’ll let you know if you’ve left out important background or needlessly explained commonly known events. Not to mention disorganized thinking, cliches or weird punctuation?!?

Thank you to my core group of genealogy-writer-friends: Lisa Imhoff, Evansville; Jennifer Eager Ehle, Middleton; Sonja Albright, Waunakee; and Mary Pohlman, Avoca. While group members have shifted a bit over the years, all of us have traveled long in time and distance. We’ve explored the regions of Germany, Scandinavia and Scotland, among other Northern European areas, to colonial North America, the U.S. Civil War era, and 19th-century western mining camps. Sci-fi time travelers to the unknown future have nothing on our mesmerizing trips to the past. 

To use a different metaphor, tracking family history is both an individual and a team sport. Our fellow trekkers into history share in our discoveries and multiply the joy of our eureka moments. In turn, by reading others’ ancestor stories, I learn facts about other places and periods that one day may answer queries into the lives of my own ancestors.

Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Caves, Mines, and Tunnels.” Also available: “Minnesota Underground,” co-authored with Greg Brick. Visit henschelhausbooks.com.