In Defense of Ordinary Ancestors

“An Authority said not long ago that there are only 40 or 50 American families that are in any way entitled to the insignia of nobility, but you cannot get the average American who has made money to believe that.  He is sure that among his ancestors he shall find somewhere coronets and Norman blood, and when he hires a genealogist to study his lineage, woe be to the searcher if he does not discover at least a baronet or two.” Davenport Democrat, 3Dec1905, p.4

Times have changed.  In our experience, most genealogists are truth-seekers, rejoicing in the location and documentation of their Great Uncle Bill (who led a blameless life selling wool socks) and in finally being able to hang his ordinary ornament in place on the family tree.  No ancestor left behind is their motto.

We do admit that some still long for roots of gold.  And there’s nothing wrong in wanting to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, or finding the truth about grandma’s stories about her grandmother, the full-blooded daughter of a Cherokee chieftain, or whether that family crest you want to hang in the living room is the real deal or something your grandfather bought from a travelling insignia salesman who happened to have your surname in stock. 

The problems come when a searcher intent on fame-by-inheritance ignores documented evidence, or lack of any, in the hopes that grafting an apple branch onto an orange tree will somehow make the oranges taste better.  It’s as if they believe that without a king or war hero (or, these days, an infamous black sheep) in their ancestry, they are somehow diminished, the ordinary descendant of (yawn) ordinary people.

They forget, or never considered, how interesting an ‘ordinary’ person can be. 

Take Great Uncle Bill for instance, that ho hum seller of itchy foot coverings who isn’t even in the direct line:  He was the first member of the family to be born in America, not two months after his parents came here from Germany.1   He wasn’t quite old enough to fight in World War I, instead staying home to endure the suspicions faced by anyone who spoke or understood German.2    Great Uncle Bill owned and operated his own sock shop-throughout the Depression, no less—employing his family (his sister, Great Grandma Erma, helped knit the merchandise—she taught her daughters the patterns, and they taught theirs) until they got back on their feet. 3   His wife, Laura, died in childbirth and he never remarried, though photos show a handsome, dapper fellow with the family nose and eyebrows.4   He raised his surviving son, Thomas,  by himself, but lost him in World War II; he sponsored the Memorial Day parade for years afterward.5   Great Uncle Bill sold the shop when he turned sixty; the store is now a Batteries Plus.6   He died at the age of seventy-four and was buried next to Laura; his estate went to his nieces and nephews, two of whom are named after him.7    His knock-knock jokes are legendary , especially the risqué ones, and are repeated at every single family reunion.8

An ordinary life, full of ordinary difficulties, trials, triumphs.  All families, for the most part, are a long series of lives like these, people who loved and lived and didn’t need family crests or tiaras to be worth remembering.  In the end, at our end, it doesn’t matter whether our ancestors were rich, poor, beggars, thieves, doctors, lawyers, or descendants of royalty.

It only matters that they are ours.


Similar information on your own Great Uncle Bill might be found in:

1 birth records and immigration papers or census information

2 Newspapers and local histories

3 City Directories, census information, and family stories and documents

4 Death records, family photos

5 Obituaries, newspaper accounts

6 City Directories

7 Death records, cemetery records, probate records

8 Family stories

 (Posted by Sarah)

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