When I start talking about how fun it is to research genealogy, or how easily I can lose an entire day searching archives, and just generally how much I enjoy the hunt, I invariably get asked the same followup question… “so, have you found any famous relatives yet?”
For a long while I’ve been just giving an internal sigh at the return of this question yet again, and responding with some level of barely controlled annoyance…
“OF COURSE I’ve got famous relatives.”
Kings and Queens, Lords and Ladies, Earls and Barons, popular religious leaders, politicians, and well-known businessmen. They’re all in there, and even some stranger titles than those. But guess what… so do thousands of other members of my family.
But recently, I’ve come to open my eyes and realize that most people don’t actually have these people in their family trees. I bought into the whole ‘everyone has a royal in their tree if you go back far enough’ bull. But it’s simply not true. Famous people makes up a small percentage of the population at any point in society, and proportionally have less children than everyone else because there are fewer of them to begin with.
As I connect with more people who have genealogy interests, I’m seeing some of them struggle with just the first 10 generations because among the ‘non-famous’ there are usually many less records. I have similar problems with the relatives I’m finding who go back to Mexico and I can only rely on the occasional census and Catholic Church records of baptismals and marriages. However, for me these are the rare problems, the rest is so easy sometimes it feels like I’m just spending hours doing data entry.
I recognize, now, that I’m lucky in where I come from. In fact, I have more living generations just in my youth than most people have in years of research. One of my maternal great-grandmothers just passed away recently, but there is still another maternal great-grandmother alive. Therefore, including my daughter that is 5 generations alive at a time. Thankfully she’s old enough to know them and form memories of them too.
With so many generations alive at once, I have access to several more generations of information from them. Just from working family memory of those alive during my time we can easily document 7 generations or even more. For example, my great-great-great-grandmother died in 1946 at the age of 92… so she was alive to tell the stories of how she was given up to another family by her mothers family (the Slaughter family) back in the 1850’s.
Of course, the Texas Slaughter family is very well documented because books have been written about them. It makes it very easy to follow the line back to Virginia where there were a few more generations, and back to England where the first Slaughter who immigrated later to the US was originally born in 1633. Which of course, was easy to follow backward because they were landowners, and following the line back to the town of Slaughter in Gloucestershire, England was a piece of cake. Once I was there, well the land passed through so many generations that I was able to see them still living in Slaughter in Gloucestershire, but using the older spelling of the name de Sloghtre when I found Gerard deSloghtre who was born in 1080 and lived there too!
In fact, it’s probably why my family line is so easy for me to follow – I’ve been able to crack open numerous books about entire branches because someone else has already researched it or it’s in some royal archive or land records book. Obviously I mentioned plural famous relatives, of which are beyond the scope of this little talk, but just assume the same ease with them in general and going even farther back.
It wasn’t until a friend of mine talked about how he doesn’t even know anything about his grandparents generation, that I started really looking, really paying attention to how difficult other people (not those who are searching in my family line) have it because their family before them didn’t document anything!
I’m beginning to realize how very very fortunate I am to come from a family line where quite a few branches wrote personal books about the family genealogy, distributed family history newsletters, were public figures well known and written about, or were landowners or titled in such a way that their bloodline for the passing of land and titles was documented heavily. I watched some episodes of the show “Who Do You Think You Are?” and saw even more of that. While some of them had the huge jumps that I did in their research, many of them were stuck or came to a dead end before getting a chance to find out where their family was, pre-America.
It’s really been an eye-opening realization when I observe other people struggling so much with their genealogy, and I don’t think I’ll be taking it for granted anymore.