Thursday, January 5, 2017

Climbing the Family Tree

Back last winter, encouraged by the wonderful program "Faces of America," in which Henry Louis Gates, Jr., does the family history of noted individuals, I started climbing the family tree.

For those of you who have done this, you may resonate with the next statement: Once you go down the rabbit hole it is hard to get out!

I found myself staying up till wee hours following this link and that, pouring through census data, discovering old family records and discovering family stories that had always been a bit murky.

One of those stories involves the family of my grandfather. He was world's greatest teetotaler. One time, as a child, we went to a restaurant that had a bar with Grandpa. I was intrigued by the murals of dogs in a Parisian cafe. He, on the other hand harumphed that "This is nothing but a saloon!"

My mother and her sisters always wondered what prompted that thought. He never mentioned his family of birth except for his sister, "Aunt Ida." As far as we knew, she was the only one and we had no idea where in the world she was, or even if she was still alive. He alluded to her raising him but that didn't answer questions.

The sisters wondered if someone in the family was an alcoholic. Or, had the mother abandoned the family? What about the father? What brought about this secrecy. It was a topic of conversation among my mother and her sisters and one that passed down to their children.

As I dug into the history project, armed with a few dates -- birth and death, mostly -- I went with a quest not only to discover this but more about my grandmother on that side, along with some more information about Dad's side of the family. That's for another post (including the discovery of a cousin I never knew I had!)

There are many geneology programs online and the one I chose was My Heritage because for the most part it was free until your family tree grew beyond more than 250 people. There are others that are free, some with different features. I've explored several and all see about the same -- they offer "hints" or "smart matches" that you can confirm or not that take you on your journey.

Early on, I was able to discover my grandfather's parents' names and was surprised to discover that his mother came from Canada. I also learned, much to my surprise, that he came from a long line of Mennonites on both sides of his family. I was able to trace back relatives on both sides -- his mom and dad -- to 1500s Switzerland.


Because of religious persecution, they moved to Germany, then to America. From America, his mother's side moved north to Canada. It is uncertain why but a possibility is that the Mennonites did not believe in war and many moved north to avoid the conflicts in this new world.

So, did the anti-alcohol stand have to do with religion? It's a possibility. Although today's Mennonites have a variety of beliefs on the subject, did they in the 1800s when Grandpa was growing up? I thought I had it!

And maybe I did. But then I discovered something else. Grandpa's mother died when he was four. (Hence, the Aunt Ida raising him idea got some credibility). In the 1880 census, they were listed but in the 1890 census, no record was found. However, in the 1900 census, my great grandfather was listed as an inmate in the Northern Michigan Asylum, a mental hospital in Northern Michigan. He was there for 13 years before his death.

There is no record as to what brought him there. Melancholia following his wife's death? Alcoholism? Dementia? Epilepsy? Another illness that might now have a name but then was considered a mental illness?

I don't know how I'll find out. My winter may involve getting a court order for the records but they may well have been destroyed in the more than 100 years since his death.

But it is a quest and as I search, I will climb one branch higher on the family tree!


  1. This sounds very exciting, and yes, it gets you hooked. I have been helping a cousin in London who is researching our family, last summer he traveled to Poland and Russia to see where our great grandparents came from. Have fun with your search! Hugs, Valerie

  2. Oh, this does get interesting! I believe you are right in that many people were placed in asylums for reasons other than mental illness. Best of luck in your search! -Jenn

  3. Interesting post today. I did some searching back about 10 years ago but then thought I couldn't go any further because everyone was back in the "old country". But maybe I can search into those roots. Its fascinating whee we come from and how we got where we are now. Hugs-Erika

  4. Sounds very much like you are on a very interesting quest!

  5. I spent a number of years climbing the family tree in the days when you actually visited old and dusty courthouses and cemeteries. A family member took strychnine and died in the county jail. The mystery was how he got it. Many years later, after we had so much technology available, we were able to read a badly faded newspaper article to learn he had hidden it in his hatband. His charges were rape, incest, and attempt to murder.

  6. You've unearthed lots of interesting info on the family.
    Mental asylums give me the chills.

  7. I love knowing about my family past but hate the search...thankfully I have a cousin that LOVES it...and he does all the research and makes copies for me...I don't keep any of it on my computer..I just don't trust it...I've lost too many things over the years..Have fun with your searches....

  8. Oh Jeanie, I've always been interested in genealogy. How wonderful that you want to know about your ancestors. Black and white photos are such treasures, and I do hope you find out all that you seek. Can I ask what heritage are you?


  9. How fascinating! I keep being tempted, but like you say it is a rabbit hole and I am not sure I want to start it. I have alot of information on my father's side of the family, but very little on my mother's. That would be the direction I would want to go, so curious! Mennonite history weights heavily in my father's family, as they started in the Netherlands, onto Germany, then Russia and then the US and Canada as pacifists.

  10. That's so exciting. I imagine this search will be full of surprises. I may do the same soon as I have found out a lot about my grandparents since moving on to their property. Even stories from the older neighbours are fascinating. I'm just happy everyone liked them. lol Have fun, Jeanie.

  11. Hey Poodle Scoop! Oh, I do understand - working on your genealogy is so addicting! Such good stories! I know you're having fun.
    Be a sweetie,
    Shelia ;)

  12. When I was an undergrad, we were told to create a family tree and history. Since I had no living relatives, I was lost. I finally went to the instructor, who had me do another project, so I have never found anything on my ancestors.

    I had NO idea there were free programs for searching. I've seen ads for Ancestry. com, but didn't want to pay for a search that might result in nothing. Thanks for pointing me to a free site, and I look forward to learning more about your ancestors as you learn. Of course, I remembered seeing your trip last summer, which took you to some of the burial sites of your relatives. Lucky you.

  13. What an intriguing task for a cold, snowy winter.

  14. Jeanie, this sounds like ingredients for a good movie or a book at least. Anyway, very interesting exercise isn't it to do these genealogy search. Umm so your ancestors came from Canada, or at least on branch of them. Mennonites, I do see their churches everywhere here, yes, even Chinese Mennonite Churches. :)

  15. Quite an ambitious project! My mother did a family tree when she was in high school and when her grandmother was still alive, so I have quite a leg up on that climb. I transcribed quite a bit of the information she recorded, and read histories of the places the family originated, but that was it. If you are lucky maybe you'll find an obsessed distant cousin who has done some of your work -- that's what happened in my husband's family, which now has names back to around 1800 and hundreds of their descendants listed. They did one reunion in the 1940s and one in the 1990s.

    best... mae from

  16. My Dad's done a lot of research in to our family tree. I don't know much of what he's found, to be honest. But I know enough to know you often find out some interesting things when you look in to your family history.

  17. How interesting and exciting! I had never thought trying those family tree programs mainly because we are the first of our immediate family who came to America and I'm not sure whether these programs have access to German records. There might be a German program though - perhaps one day I will check this out. You must feel a bit like a detective while investigating your family's history. I can understand that this can become pretty addictive.

  18. This post was absolutely fascinating to me. My maternal grandmother Mary took her genealogy hobby very seriously and its wonderful to fill in some blanks. I also loved your "Mom" tree. The Storybook ornaments are fabulous.

  19. You definitely found a lot of information!

    I've never really gotten into family history. The little bit I know about most of my great grandparents honestly makes me not want to know more. It appears that most of them were pretty horrible people.

    I did get to hear a lot of old stories from my grandfather about 11 years ago when they moved to Florida from SC. I drove him, and got to hear some really fascinating stories on the drive.

    I hope you're able to get the records you're looking for.

  20. What a cool project! I'm impressed with all you were able to unearth. Ah, the glories of modern technology! My brother has done some research on our family history. I need to see if he has it written down!


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