21 March 2013

Before We Begin, Where Do We Start?

In high school, a teacher once said, "Children know everything, because they don't know what they don't know." That's very true. An infant is unaware of the existence of anything outside of it's experience. If he can't see it, it ceases to be. That is why babies love Peek-a-boo! A baby is watching you leave and reenter existence and he finds that fascinating. As soon as he is able to recognise that "out of sight doesn't mean out of reality", the game becomes dull and useless. A toddler "knows" that Earth is populated by people who pay attention to him and ends at the edge of town (or however far his parents have taken him). When he goes to school, he learns the world is a huge place with people he may never meet and places he may never go (and yet they exist all the same). As the child advances from elementary to high school and on to college, he is introduced to a progressively larger world. He learns a great deal, but the biggest epiphany is, "There is more that you'll never know than you'll ever know."

This is a recurring theme in many spheres of humanity, so naturally I have a genealogical corollary. When we are children, our "world" is our immediate family. Our mother, father, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins.... whatever relations we see frequently. As far as we "know", everyone has the same family structure. As we grow, we meet new relations and learn how they connect to us. We learn generational differences (uncle vs. great uncle), family "sides" (maternal vs. paternal), and how different our family dynamic is from anyone else's. If we are bitten by the genealogy bug (hello, Dear Reader) or just really anal, we learn the difference in 1st and 3rd cousins and what the heck "removed" means.

We also evolve what facts we "know". As a child, I "knew" my mom, dad, siblings and cousins were born in the U.S. If I had been asked where my family was from, I would have said "America". I was about 9 when I started to help my dad with our family research. I learned that great grandma Brown was Scottish and grandma Gibson's parents were Native American. My dad, like most adults, believed children can only handle so many facts at once (and simple ones at that), so he was vague with the details of where our family was from. He knew enough to say we were from lots of places, but not very specific. So at this stage, if asked about my family, I would have said, "We're basically from everywhere." I could be specific as far as Scottish or Native, but I didn't really know more. By high school, my interest in family history was flourishing just as dad's was waning. I now "knew" from the research of many family members that great grandma Brown's parents were Russian, grandma Gibson's parents were 100% Native American, great grandpa Brown was English, and great great grandma Householder was also 100% Native American. The rest of the family was German, Irish and possibly Spanish or French. For a good long while, that was what I "knew".

It can often be a jarring experience for the child-turning-adult when their world grows larger and they learn all the things they don't know. Anyone who has moved to a drastically different environment than what they grew up with (college, first-time work experience, new state/country) can certainly attest to the suddenness and disorientation of "not knowing". Many can suffer a crisis if what they "know" is totally divergent from the new reality. This happens in genealogy all the time, so it's best to prepare yourself for it. When I started my own serious adult research, my father thought I could handle the truth about my grandfather's paternity (basically that it was anyone's guess). I also uncovered greater details about truths I had previously "known". Great grandma Brown was Scottish born. Her parents weren't Russian, but Lithuanian and possibly Jewish. My grandmother had a previous marriage and two aunts and an uncle were the fruits of that union (not really a secret, just not discussed when I was a child). I uncovered murders, betrayals, and scandals galore. And more than a few "nonpaternity events" were shook out of the tree! (A "nonpaternity event" is when one proves through documentation or genetic testing that a child's known father is not their father.) If I hadn't been prepared through a solid family foundation and years of training in objective research, many of these new facts could've shaken my inner core of self-worth. I could have ended up either having a crisis of identity (if my great great grandfather was a slaver, what does that make me?) or denied the blatant truth (the documents must be lying; someone made a mistake). I would have blunted my own research in order to stick with what I "knew" rather than adapt to the ever-growing world my family really lived in.

Not that long ago there was no Internet. In those days, genealogists had to travel to repositories and relatives to gather information. Or they had to write to them and wait for a response. If possible, they may call and get the information a little more quickly, but when compared with how fast the Internet is, these were the days of slow progress. This genealogical "world" was very small. One could spend a lifetime just gathering the information for one line of a branch of the family. What we could "know" was limited by distance, time and cost. Then Internet was invented and with it came message boards. Now we could expand our world to include people with similar research interests and converse with them almost in real time. As businesses started to realise the benefit of providing genealogical services online, our world was once again expanded. Now records and people are available almost immediately. The costs have drastically reduced as well, allowing us to gather more records than our budget previously could handle. Genealogical DNA testing isn't really new, but it is recent and still in the early stages of usefulness. Now our own biology is helping us to bridge the documentation gaps and confirm what we "know". Every day our skills grow as we learn something new about our family or genealogy in general. Every day our world is a little bit bigger and we know more about all that we don't know. There's a bit of a learning a curve, but everyone seems to follow the same general process whether they consciously know it or not. While I consider this my first post in a DNA series, it's really a post about expanding your mind to accept that's there's more that you'll never know than you'll ever know.

Step 1- Forget What You Know
Do you know who your parents are? For the average person, I just wrote the silliest sentence in history. But do you really? If the evidence that you know your parents is that two people who you called "mom" and "dad" raised you, you could have a nasty shock waiting for you. Every day someone experiences a nonpaternity event that refutes what they knew. Every day, a person starts their research despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth of some family member only to find out that said family didn't want to tell them that they or their parents (or grandparents) are adopted. While some can take it in stride, many are ill-equipped and insist the records or DNA must be lying (because we all know grandma didn't, right?).

So start from the very beginning and question it all. This isn't the time to grill your mother Dateline-style, but to find the paper trail. (Where's your birth certificate, Mother? If that is your real name.) Interview relatives about your childhood (and theirs). Ask for birth certificates, announcements, photos, video, etc. I live by the motto of "if I know it, I can show it." Any "fact" that I don't have a record for is preceded by "allegedly", "supposedly", or some other qualifier of "as far as I know". One proof isn't enough, the more independent sources that confirm a fact, the better. Knowing something isn't black and white in the genealogy world. There are many shades of grey in between. Despite all the advances in the DNA options available to genealogists, it doesn't replace documentation. If you have reliable documentation starting with yourself and going back to your earliest known ancestor, the DNA can help to guide your next steps. Without documentation, the first contradictory genetic profile will confuse and most likely upset you. Let's be honest, no one's family tree is unbroken. Somewhere in the past is an unknown father (or two, or twelve). Proving what you know now before taking a DNA test (or two, or twelve) can help you to better interpret the results.

Step 2- Know Thyself
It's a common occurrence in genealogy for a person to have a crisis of identity when they learn something new about their ancestors. The one I see the most is the "if my ancestor was a slave owner, how does that change who I am?" In reality, it doesn't. So you're great grandmother was a gun-toting, cigar-smoking, man-hating, politically conservative yet religiously liberal woman. You are who you are and knowing or not knowing those things about her doesn't change you in the least. It's very important that you accept this basic concept before taking a DNA test. DNA isn't 50 years old, or 100 years, or even 1000. It's older than old. Millions of years of evolution scrambling and combining and changing and rearranging. You may "know" your family lines can all go back to 1700's Germany, but your DNA knows that your family goes farther back than that. I plan this as a series, so I'll get into the DNA test types and ethnicity and all that your DNA "knows" as far as we "know", but right now I just need you to accept that DNA will go back farther than you can possibly document. Know that whatever you find in records or genetics doesn't change who you have always been, it just adds to you.

Step 3- Follow, Don't Lead
As I said, some people take the new facts so hard that they deny their veracity. An ethnicity test could show that your DNA isn't as Native American as you previously thought. Sometimes our documents and our DNA can contradict. Well, they contradict as far as we "know". But again, since DNA goes farther back than recent history and reliable documentation, what we perceive as a contradiction could simply be a clue to a deeper history. If we aren't prepared to accept the evidence as it is, we will try to shape it to the world that we "know". I "know" that my great grandmother's parents were Lithuanian because documents say so (censuses and death records). I recently found birth records for 5 of their 7 children that state their marriage was in Poland. Now, this could mean that the other documents are misleading and that they are really Polish. Or it could mean they lived close to the border of Poland at the time they married and used the closest or most convenient officiant. DNA could confirm Eastern European descent (still not going to differentiate between Polish or Lithuanian and I'll explain in the next post why) or it could throw me for a loop and say that they were Turkish, Jewish, Sub-Saharan African or something else entirely! My great grandmother was born in Scotland, so she's still Scottish. Her parents (if I can confirm their birthplaces) will still be Lithuanian. All the DNA will tell me is the deeper truths. It won't change who we are or were, only add.

Step 4- Flow With the Know
Sometimes I like to pretend I'm a lawyer trying to prove a case in court. I gather the facts via solid and reliable documentation. Most of the time, I am the judge and jury as well, but sometimes the family at large or the genealogical community plays the part of judge. The better my documents, the stronger my case. If I've tried to lead my evidence to the facts I want to believe in, it'll be obvious and my case will be dismissed. In the end, I'm trying to prove what I know "beyond a reasonable doubt." There's always more I don't know, and some day a descendant may uncover it. Until then, I know what I know until I know better.

My next posts will go into as much detail as I can about DNA testing for genealogy purposes. I'll cover each type of test separately and give you some links to a few places you can try testing. Thanks to a new occupational endeavor, I can finally start taking the tests (or beg my brother to do so) and will periodically update you with reviews of specific tests and my personal experience with them. Even if it is a long while before my own experiences start rolling in, I am sure that you'll have enough pros and cons from the upcoming DNA series to choose the test(s) most beneficial to you with enough understanding of how they work to set your expectations to the appropriate level. This week is about setting the expectation that what we know is always evolving, the world is always growing and family is always family. I'll give you time to let that absorb in, because I also want you to evaluate what you currently know. How good is your current documentation? How reliable are your sources? How deep has your research been for each individual? Do you look only for census records or do you include newspapers, church records, military documents, etc.? Are you prepared for unsavory truths (illegitimacy, crime, war)? Are you willing to weigh each source on it's own merits no matter your emotional attachment to the individuals you are researching?

And are you willing to learn? The only way to truly bring to light the reality of our ancestors' lives is to learn not only about them, but about the processes of research and genealogy in general. There's a lot to take in on any one subject and general family research will bring you into contact with a great many of them. I know how to research in the U.S. and U.K. With the new information about my great grandmother's parents, I now have to research in Poland and Lithuania. I have to accept the fact that I don't know about naming systems, vital record repositories or general history of the areas in question. I may only scratch enough of the surface to get what I want, or I could become an all-knowing expert on Baltic genealogy (probably not). No matter what I give you in this series of DNA, there will be more I don't know. If you want to be well-versed in genetic genealogy, you'll have to do some research. You'll have to read about the various tests, genome science, anthropology, companies that provide the tests, how to share your results, geography and history...... no matter what, "There is more that you'll never know than you'll ever know."

The point is to know when you don't know enough,

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