The next thing you do after you spit in a tube and send it for DNA Sequencing is wait… a… long… time. When I first used Ancestry in April of 2017, I wanted to jump in and work on a family tree right away. So I decided to start with my adoptive parents, Lou and Ida Holowach. My dad was actually born in Poland, and came over with his mother in 1917 at the age of 4, escaping through St. Petersburg to Sweden just before the Bolsheviks closed the Russian border. That was when I first discovered the issues with getting information about people from Eastern Europe. If the family didn’t bring records, or remember things to write down, they are very hard to dig up. I figured that my mom would be easier. She was a Hamilton, the daughter of a staunch Scottish Presbyterian father whose grandparents had helped settle the hilly valley country around Delaware County, NY.
It’s funny, but she never really talked about her family, outside of her 2 older sisters, who I got to know myself after we moved back to her hometown of Oneonta when I was 11. Her parents had both passed away shortly after the Depression, so I never knew them at all, and she never showed me her childhood home, even though it was only a few miles away. I entered in the information about her parents which I knew, and let Ancestry’s database do the rest. That was my first experience with the awesome collection of data online which allows you to construct something from next to nothing. Her grandmother’s maiden name was Husted, which led me down the trail of New England immigrants who had started in Connecticut and, searching for more arable farmland, moved into Duchess County in New York and then followed the rivers upstream through the Catskills and into Western New York, looking for land they could own outright, and not have to pay rent forever to patent grant landlords.
As I worked my way back through my mother’s heritage, I watched in awe as the names slowly converged on the Plymouth colony. Ultimately, they led to that Holy Grail of American genealogy, passengers on the Mayflower. One of the things I discovered along the way is that the further back the tree carried me, the more information was available from other people’s family trees. Certainly, the Mayflower descendants have extremely good records, but this was my first experience with what a difference the “crowd-sourcing” of family information made in the larger picture. Every person who contributed their own known family information either verified what was already there or filled in some of the missing details, like exact dates instead of just an approximate year.
I’m sure my mother had absolutely no idea she was related to John Howland, one of the Mayflower crew who actually help scout the site at which the Pilgrims would eventually set anchor and name Plymouth. I have thought a lot about why my mother never spoke about her family, and realized that my dad was a Polish Catholic and she would have had to convert to marry him. In those days, is was not only controversial for a Protestant to marry a Catholic, but if her family actually started the first Scottish Presbyterian church in Delaware County, in their own living room, then you can imagine the family acrimony. It was probably one of those situations where the phrase “you’re dead to me” might have been flung in anger. Later that year, I visited the cemetery in Bloomville, NY and found the graves of her grandparents and even that great-grandmother who led back to Plymouth Rock. The people I could not find there anywhere were my mother’s own parents. Eventually, I tracked them down. On a hunch, I called the caretaker of a non-Catholic cemetery in Oneonta, and found George and Jennie Barker Hamilton, along with my Aunt Isabelle, in my own hometown, on a street I drove down hundreds of times when I lived there. My mom never took me there or even mentioned they were right there in town. That is kind of sad.
That did give me a preview of the kind of information roadblock you can run into with many families. There are family secrets that only a few people know and never talk about. There are also things that everybody in the family knows, but just agree to stop talking about. In time, the effect is the same… the knowledge disappears.