One of the readers of this blog was reminded by my last entry to send family information she had received from a branch of the Niebuhr clan which had become disconnected, and was happy to reconnect and offer names and dates. I don't know whether this branch of the family will wish at some point also to offer the flesh - the family stories - to clothe the bones of the names and dates. So very many of the families who lived and suffered through the chaos of two wars, a revolution, famines, epidemics - are reluctant to speak or write of those times. I regret that because their stories have lessons for those of us whose forebears left Russia in the early years of the last century, being on another continent when the terrible times began. I have learned something of these times through putting together the story of my great-aunt, my grandmother's youngest sister, who did not come to Canada until 1926. The lessons? They are lessons of surviving, of holding together the values of the family, of enduring great sorrow and misery - and coming out the other end - most of them - with their sanity and their balance and their belief in the goodness of life intact. We have it too easy, here and now, to grasp fully what they experienced, but we cannot grasp it at all if they don't tell us about it.
When my grandson was eighteen, I was transcribing family data into my genealogy program about a cousin of his, who at eighteen in 1938 was taken from his home and shot. I had to stop my data-entry task for a few days to think about what it would mean to have that happen in a family. And - I couldn't grasp it.
I had said I would write of the fun of family trees, so I must not get myself caught up in sadness...
When one has entered information into a computerized data base, it is then possible to display that information in a great many ways. For example, if you were asked what month of the year holds more marriages than any other, you might guess June, but for the Mennonite branch of my family, that is not the case at all. Think about it! A great many of our Mennonite forebears were farmers. June typically would be much too busy a month for a wedding. Looking at my entire data base, which includes many urban English on my father's side, June is indeed the peak month, but for the descendants of our earliest ancestor, Christof Niebuhr, the peak months are July and August. Looking at the number of children in families, there was another surprise - the highest peak on the graph was for families with two children. Certainly the graph reflects ALL the descendants of Christof Niebuhr, and the biggest number of them are the present generation, when family size has reduced compared to earlier generaions. That's another interesting figure - how many descendants in each generation? For Christof Niebur the 9th and 10th generations - that is, my generation and that of my children - have a half of the total descendants of 12 generations. This is in part explained by our having more complete family histories the closer we get to the present. Nevetheless it is interesting to note that this one man in the 16th century has more than 8000 direct descendants and in addition their roughly 3000 spouses in his family tree.
In an earlier blog I mentioned the way ancestors double every generation. By the year 1000 AD, the one family line I have going back that far has just under a billion people in it - or would IF they were all recorded, and if there were no overlaps. By the year 80 AD, given those same conditions, my ancestors would MORE THAN equal the weight of the entire earth. This fact of geometric progression makes nonsense of the notion being a direct descendant of - well, some recognizable historical personage, say - which seems to be what many people would like to see in their family tree. If's simply not meaningful in a genetic sense.
And yet - there is mitochondrial DNA to be considered, and if I understood enough about it, I would write about it. There's a sort of fad going on just now about sending one's DNA for testing, contributing to the building up a data bank of mitochondrial DNA. Intrigued by what I read, I jumped on that bandwagon - part of the FUN of amateur genealogy! - and since then have been sent by email many posts explaining it all in deeply incomprehensible terms. If I can ever wrap my limp old brain around the concepts I will write about it, but that's not going to be soon! I had an email from one of the Niebuhr connection who actually understood what it is all about, and had acquired information through havng his DNA tested where his earliest European ancestors had lived. I'm talking about thousands of years ago, and I find that pretty interesting.
But as for tracing family lines WAY back, well, the principle meaning I derive from the tracing my great-grandfather did in 1853 was to observe in the changes of names in the family line, how history worked itself out in surnames. From "English" names (a mongrel nation if ever there was one!) to French names (with the Norman conquest in 1066) to Scandinavian names in the Middle Ages to Roman names in the early centuries of the first milennium AD. I regard this ancestor exploration as an interesting way of learning history. And of course, the farther back you go, the less likely it is that the history bears any resemblance to what actually happened. My great-grandfather was VERY fond of the idea that he was descended from an English minor baron who resisted the Normans for years after the conquest, and recently I read a biography of that individual which held that his actual EXISTENCE was seriously in doubt.
However, I derive a great deal of enjoyment about putting together all the information which comes to me, and treasuring it as a family history. I find it, simply, fun.