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Ancestors or Descendants?

Here’s the genealogical equivalent to the age-old “boxers or briefs” question—when it comes to family history, does your passion lie with finding ancestors, or finding descendants?  Both pursuits have their own unique rewards and particular challenges.

Many people get hooked on family history as they try to flesh out a chart of their direct ancestors.  As kids, we fill in grandparents, ask about great-grandparents and quickly fill in the first few levels of the basic ancestry charts.  It’s a huge thrill to completely fill in that one-page, five-generation chart.

For people who are driven by the search for ancestors, the ultimate goal is often to identify and record as many direct ancestors as possible and to go back as far as possible.  We’ll spend months banging on a particular brick wall until we eventually uncover a new ancestor, or add specific dates and places where we previously only had a name.

Or we might be driven more by the search for descendants.  We pick one of our ancestral families, often starting with our own surname, and we do our best to fill in a complete tree of descendants, starting as far back as possible.

For descendants-focused family historians, the ultimate goal is to create a tree that contains absolutely every descendant of a particular family.  We get energized by reconnecting with long-lost cousins and by fleshing out branches of the family that we didn’t know anything about.

Me, I’m more of a descendants-guy than an ancestors-guy.  This is probably because I come from a large family (my Sexton line) that has always been close and because we are such good storytellers.  I also love the idea of putting an ancestor in some sort of historical context, by learning as much as possible about their immediate family.

Both quests—ancestors or descendants—are never-ending.  We can always keep pushing the search for ancestors, as we go back farther and farther.  And, building a list of descendants, there are always new babies being born and cousins growing up and getting married.

Whichever aspect we tend to focus on, there is a lot of benefit in switching occasionally between ancestors-focused and descendants-focused.  Learning more about an ancestor’s siblings and family can often help us push our records even further back.  And we can often learn more about a tree of descendants by finding out more about the ancestors on both sides of the family.

In reality, most of us are a mixture of both types of family historian.  Rare is the completely clean .GED file that goes in one direction only.  We often start out by exploring direct ancestors, but eventually get interested in the families that these ancestors came from.  So we start “going sideways”, learning as much as we can about the entire family.

But when it comes down to it, if I had to answer the ancestors-or-descendants question directly, I’d have to say—descendants.  How about you?

A Family Photo Jackpot

Ted Sexton

Ted Sexton

Grandpa Ted was into scrapbooking long before it became fashionable. You’d never have guessed it from looking at him, though. To all appearances, he was just a hard-working blue-collar guy, owner of a small printing business, and father of six. But Ted had a lifelong passion for family history and spent many years obsessively collecting family photos and assembling them into scrapbooks that he kept in the basement.

As a kid, I got to visit Grandma and Grandpa Sexton’s house often, and always made a beeline for the corner of the basement that was Ted’s unique collection of knick-knacks, books, novelty liquor bottles and old photos. I spent many hours poring over the old books and scrapbooks that jammed the shelves. I didn’t know who most of the people in the scrapbook photos were—Grandpa just said that they were all uncles, aunts and cousins. But I was fascinated by the old photos from the 1930s and 1940s and the hours that I spent in Grandpa Ted’s basement kindled my passion for family history.

The Bemidji Twelve

The Bemidji Twelve

Born in 1902, Ted was the second of twelve children. The family lived in Bemidji, Minnesota, where Ted’s father worked as a foreman at a lumber mill. Ted’s mother was the family’s anchor, somehow raising a dozen kids and getting the family through the depression on the little income that they had.

Ted and his siblings were always close.  Over the years, many of them moved down to the Twin Cities, but continued to spend time together and to see each other often.  Ted was a key part of the family’s social life, often traveling to visit siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins.  He was a consummate storyteller as well, as were many of his brothers and sisters.

But Ted also had a passion for collecting family mementos—especially photographs.  He hung onto every photo that anyone ever sent him and many of them ended up in his large scrapbooks in the basement.

I heard stories, years later, of some family members even getting a little angry with Ted when they’d discover some photo of theirs in one of his scrapbooks, which he had “borrowed” years ago.  The joke was that if you ever let Ted get his hands on one of your photos, you’d likely never see it again.

Ted was also the publisher of a small newspaper and, later, the owner of a local printing company.  It was no surprise then that his passion for collecting family photos led him to publish, in 1964, a bound book of family photos.  Ted printed lots of copies and gave them to everyone in the family, so we all grew up with at least one copy of of this book of family photos at home.

The book—which we all referred to as the “green book” because of its green cover—contained about a hundred black and white photos.  They were in no particular order, but each was neatly labeled, indicating the name of everyone in the photo.  Like most of my cousins, I learned over the years to identify uncles, aunts and cousins by studying the green book and matching faces with names.  By 1964, when the book was published, there were 62 direct descendants of Ted’s parents, including 27 first cousins (my Dad’s generation) and 23 2nd cousins.

By 1997, almost exactly 100 years after Ted’s parents were married, the number of their direct descendants had grown to 109, including 70 2nd cousins (my generation).  Ted had passed away in 1980, but his passion for family history was still alive, in all of the stories that the family continued to tell about “the Bemidji Twelve”.  (Four of the original twelve siblings were still alive in 1997).

It was also in 1997 that Ted’s son Jerry, now owner of the original printing business, decided to publish an updated version of the 1964 “green book”.  The new book, entitled “The Minnesota Connection”, was reminiscent of the original, with a green cover, similar size, and a couple hundred family photos.  It ended up being over 300 pages long and included not only photos, but detailed family data, as well as lots of personal stories that people shared about relatives who had passed on.

The book was a massive undertaking.  Uncle Jerry financed the project and recruited my cousin Dan, along with his wife, to edit the book and to generate most of the content.  The most time-consuming task for them was in writing letters to ask people to share their photos, and in collecting, organizing and scanning all of the photos that they received.

Family members were extremely generous in the photos that they sent.  Many people sent large manila envelopes, filled with photos spanning many years.  So it was also a challenge to select the subset of photos to include in the book.

The Minnesota Connection

The Minnesota Connection

After many months of hard work by my cousin and his wife, The Minnesota Connection went to press.  As his father Ted had done 30 years earlier, Uncle Jerry printed lots of copies and distributed them to the entire family.  The new “green book” was beautiful, with a full color cover, professionally bound, and containing lots more photos and content than the 1964 version.

For me, the new book of family photos reignited a passion for family history that had been dormant since childhood.  In the years following its publication, I got more and more excited about transferring the contents of the book to a permanent web site.  I planned on starting with the photos from the green book and then letting people add photos of their own to the web site.

But I led a very busy life and it wasn’t until early 2007 that I finally got around to calling my cousin Dan to find out if he had a digital copy of all of the photos that they had scanned back in 1997.

To my surprise, Dan said that he wasn’t sure what happened to the digital copies, but he still had all of the original photos that went into the book.  He’d always intended to return them, but had never gotten around to it.

I was excited at the prospect of being able to rescan these photos and then share them online with the rest of the family.  I went to meet Dan at his business and he took me into a warehouse space at the back of his building, where he had several huge shelves filled with boxes and crates.  Dan said that all of the photos were up on the top shelf.

The top of the shelving was 10-12 feet off of the ground, so Dan went to grab a ladder and then climbed up and started handing boxes down to me.  At first, I figured that he wasn’t exactly sure which box the photos were in.  But suddenly it hit me—every box that he handed down was full of family photos!

I had been expecting just a few manila envelopes containing the photos that ended up in the green book.  Instead, Dan had all of the photos that people sent him in 1997.  This alone amounted to many hundreds of photos.  But it didn’t stop there.  The boxes in Dan’s back room were filled with Grandpa Ted’s entire photo and scrapbook collection!

As I continued to open box after box to see what we had, I just got more and more excited.  There were some truly wonderful treasures in Ted’s collection.  He had stacks and stacks of photos going back 60-70 years.  And we also found several scrapbooks that I had never seen, full of even older photos of extended family members.

I had hit the family history jackpot—a huge collection of original photos, most of which no one had seen in years.  I figured that there must have been something like several thousand photos in all.

It gradually dawned on me the project that lay ahead of me.  This was no longer a matter of just scanning a couple hundred photos.  Instead, I was looking at a major project that would take up the next few years.  I was starting to become giddy with the idea of scanning, identifying, and cataloguing this huge collection.

I also realized what a huge responsibility this was, and what an honor.  As it turned out, Dan trusted me enough with the photos to let me take the entire collection home.  I promised him that I’d start scanning the photos right away and we could then come up with a plan for preserving the originals.

As I write this, it’s been a year and a half since I brought Ted’s collection home and started working through it.  So far, I’ve scanned and identified close to 1,000 photos.  I’ve published everything to our family site on ancestry.com and have been able to start sharing the photos with other family members.

Although I have a lot of work ahead of me, I’m committed to the mission of preserving for future generations this amazing collection of family photos and history.  This is the kind of project that every family historian dreams of tackling.  I’m also truly thankful to Grandpa Ted for his passion for collecting and preserving these photos.  It’s because of him that we now have access to such a wonderful collection of family memories.

Why I Love Family History

Well, here we go.  I’m going to start this blog with a post talking about why I love family history so much and why I’ve decided to start a blog.

The first thing to share about myself is that I’m outrageously passionate about my own family history.  Oddly enough, family history and genealogy seem to be hobbies that people don’t get involved in half-heartedly.  It seems that everyone I hear about who is interested in family history could qualify as being obsessed.  I certainly fall into that category.

Why is this?  Why don’t most of us just list genealogy as yet another interest in a long list?  Why does it grab us the way it does and then try to steal every minute of free time that we have?

The easy answer might be that it’s because of our personality type.  The sort of person that is attracted to family history to start with tends to be the sort of detail-oriented person who gets excited about collecting and cataloging family data and information.

But I believe that the passion goes a little deeper than this.  Most of us who get interested in genealogy start out by being passionate about history in general.  Then, as we start collecting information about our own ancestors and we see where they fit into an historical narrative, history comes alive for us.  We start with the stories about our parents or grandparents that we’ve heard over the years and we then imagine these stories playing out in the times and places that we read about in history books.

And because of our connection to our ancestors—a very permanent and direct connection–we become suddenly connected with history itself.  And this connection draws us back into history in a way that no history book ever can.  It’s as if the two-dimensional characters in the history books have become three-dimensional, fleshed out with names and faces that we know personally.  Some would say that it’s even as if we go back in time ourselves, to live within our ancestors and see history as they themselves saw it.

So this passion is more than just a compulsion to collect, organize and publish our family data.  It has more to do with touching some sort of energy that spans time and makes us all the same, regardless of what century we live in.  It’s about feeling this energy inside of ourselves and realizing that we are just another actor in this ongoing story.  And as we celebrate our ancestors’ lives and everything that they learned and love, we learn to celebrate our own lives with the same spirit, knowing that we come from them and that they are somehow still a part of us.

If we have children of our own, all of these family stories and the arc of our ancestors’ lives inspire us to live out the stories of a new generation.  We have a sense of what it means for someone to live out a long life, rich in love, and so we do our best to live our own lives as richly as possible and pass that same love on to our children.

I confess that I’ve been completely consumed with this passion for family history, as many of us have.  I grew up hearing so many wonderful stories about my grandparents and their families—and their stories made the past that they lived in come alive for me.  I’m doing my best now to preserve what I’ve heard by gathering up these stories and photos, so that these ancestors won’t be entirely forgotten when my own generation has passed on.  And, sooner rather than later, I need to start collecting the stories of my own generation, to pass them on to my children.

I’ve decided to start blogging because of my great passion for all of this.  I want to share my passion with others out there who feel as I do about the joy that we get from engaging in this pastime.  I have so many ideas about ways that we can collect, enjoy, and share all of these memories.  I’m very eager to share them with others and to in turn gather new ideas that will help me do an even better job of preserving and sharing our precious family heritage.

These stories and this energy that we get from our ancestors is our heritage.  It is something that has been passed on to us not just through a packet of photos that we find in a closet, but by virtue of the lives that our ancestors lived and all that they taught us.  If we honor them, we will cherish these memories and do our best to preserve them.  We have become our parents generation, and we have in turn become the keepers of these memories and of all that they taught us.  For my part, I honor my family members who are no longer with us.  And I in turn feel honored to be able to pass what I know of them on to my own children and to the next generation.

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