But in the past decade, family history has been “disrupted” (to borrow an MBA term). That just means that it used to require experts but is now largely accessible to novices like me. To be sure, there are still experts who do specialized work. There always will be. But now there is also plenty of room for amateurs and hobbyists. Anyone with access to a computer or a smart phone can do meaningful family history research through user-friendly websites like ancestry.com and familysearch.com.
This last week, I got the app for familysearch.com on my phone. Now when I’m waiting at the airport or bored at a meeting, I have a much more satisfying alternative to checking Facebook. I can explore my family tree, look at pictures of my ancestors, and read their journal entries.
Here’s a simple view on my phone of five generations from my paternal Jepson line:
For example, if you’d asked me two years ago about my ancestry, I would have said that I’m of Swedish descent and that my ancestors came to America when they became Mormons in the mid-1800’s. That part is true; I can trace my paternal line back all the way to 1680. And here, from six generations ago, are the original Jepsons in Utah:
I also have ancestors who were Puritan settlers of New England. I have ancestors that fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War. I have an ancestor who was murdered over a water dispute. I have ancestors who were wealthy and influential and others who lived in adobe huts. I have ancestors who amaze me with their humility and industry. And I have others that appall me for a long list of reasons I’ll not dive into. But on all sides, I never get tired of reading their stories and getting to know them. They help me know myself. And I sincerely love them.
I’ve also come to know that, in addition to being a Jepson, I’m also (at least) a Farnsworth, a Harrison, a Seegmiller, a Crowley, an Olmstead, a Minson, a Perrett, a Burton, a Richards, a Corry, a Moyes, a Manwaring, a Bird, a Jakob, and a Flamm. That seems like a long list, but that’s only to my fourth generation. And every step back a generation in time, the list of my names doubles!
One of my new favorite hobbies has been to find out if I’m related to people whom I encounter at work, at church, in school, or on Facebook. I’m proud to say that I’ve friended people on Facebook just because I discovered that we were related. Some of these are among my favorite people to follow, even though I’ve never met them in person. One of them, a Manwaring, is someone I’ve grown so fond of that I accidentally think of her as a cousin I grew up with. I find myself laughing with her when she laughs and crying with her when she cries. I have to remind myself that we’ve never met!
I also befriended a whole clan of Jepsons who ended up not being related to me at all. Amazingly, their Jepson ancestors came to the same towns in southern Utah as mine did and all at about the same time and for the same reasons. But we can’t find any connection at all between my Swedish Jepsons and their British Jepsons. But after all that looking, we feel like cousins anyway. So now they’re friends and adopted family.
I’ve made dozens of connections at church when I sit next to someone with a last name that I recognize, like a Crowley a couple of years ago, or a Farnsworth just this month. I always have about the same conversation. I tell them we might be related with something like, “Hey, I’m a Farnsworth too!” Then I ask them the name of a deceased paternal ancestor like a father or grandfather. And then I get to work.
Within an hour or so, I can often find a connection and then give them a hand-written diagram that shows how far back that connection goes. It’s usually pretty far back. It turns out that I have a whole lot of fifth and sixth and seventh cousins out there.
And that’s actually where the story gets weird.
I was a little bored today and decided to pull out my phone and do some exploration around my family tree. I worked my way pretty far up the Farnsworth line and found great stories and pictures. One of them Philo T. Farnsworth, invented the television, and I already knew that. But I didn’t know a lot of other stories and they were delightful to discover. These were amazing people.
After spending some time with them and getting to know them a lot better, I came across a couple amazing stories that I was eager to share with my kids sometime soon. But then it occurred to me that all the stories I’d be sharing (indeed, all the stories I have been sharing lately) came just from my side of the family.
That just seemed imbalanced. Of course I also want the kids to know about Wendy’s side of the family. And I know nothing about them. I never read up on them or explore their histories. I’ve never climbed that family tree at all.
With time to kill and my interest piqued, I took my first journey into Wendy’s family history. I chased each line up a few generations looking for the normal stuff that interests me, like what countries people came from, what year families came to the United States, and how they all ended up converging to eventually create a beautiful, blue-eyed girl in Salt Lake City, Utah.
This was exciting since it was new territory for me. And the names were all new: Hug, Ramsauer, Bondt, King, Corwin, Lister, Hobson, Nielsen, Rassmussen, Higgins, Hampshire, Johnstun, Snyder, Henry, Barnum, Comstock…….
“Hey, I’m a Comstock too!”
And, you guessed it, Wendy and I are cousins. Sixth cousins, to be exact. Here is the chart I made her:
I was so excited to find this connection that I just couldn’t wait to share it. I thought, “No wonder we fell in love.” And, “What an amazing thing, to share this great ancestry.” And, “Let’s drive to Utah this weekend and visit historic sites and gravestones from our mutual lineage.”
But Wendy was just grossed out.
She’s forbidden all use of the word “cousin” in our house.
She won't kiss me on the mouth.
At dinner, I said something like, “Hey, cuz, could you pass the rice.” And she glowered at me.
So it’s evolved into some kind of a crazy, old-timey family feud. Cousin fighting cousin; cousin in love with cousin.
I don’t know how to end this story because I still don’t know where it ends.
But I can say that family history is complex and wonderful. It’s not always positive. I do have ancestors who were stalwart saints. These folks crossed the plains barefoot and built a community out of the desert simply because they had faith. But, in addition to all those inspiring accounts, I’ve found other ancestors who were mean, who were selfish, and who left ugly legacies. I recently found one ancestor who left his mule and his slave (in the same sentence!) to whichever of his two sons could manage to be the richest before their dad died. That’s pretty gross.
And it can be surprising. Not only because you discover so much about your ancestry and yourself. But also because you realize how connected you really are to strangers all around you. So much so that maybe, if you’re as lucky as me, you’re even married to your cousin!