I read somewhere that genealogy is something that only becomes interesting in middle age. I don’t know that this holds true for someone who has always been fascinated by tombstones, old photographs and historical documents (particularly personal ones), but perhaps that’s just because I am not willing to claim the whiff of stodginess that accompanies the words, middle age.

Nevertheless, as more archival material has made its way online, courtesy of hardworking, underpaid archivists and several armies of committed volunteers, I’ve gone poking around myself.

One of my cousins in The Netherlands is doing a remarkable job tracing my maternal family history. With its complex web of voluntary and involuntary migration (that, over the last couple of centuries has come to encompass 5 continents), and the various restrictions placed on slaves (who didn’t have last names or shoes until emancipation, and who were likely only counted and named then so that their owners would qualify for compensation) and contract workers (otherwise known as indentured labourers), it’s a history filled with many blank spaces, silences where there should be names and stories.

So I went off to conduct an experiment.

Instead of digging through the muddy waters of India/Africa/China/Suriname/The Netherlands, perhaps it was simpler to start with my father’s family.

For the past 200+ years, they’ve stayed put. Not only have they stayed in the same country, but they were in the same region for over 150 years. God-fearing folk, they registered marriages, births and deaths. They all had last names. I expect that most, if not all, of them, wore some kind of footwear. And every single one of them was laden down with a good, Latin-inspired Catholic name. or at least, that’s how it seems.

Ferreting out this side of the family tree has, so far, been a piece of cake. Half an hour on one online local Dutch archive and a few minutes at another, and armed with the story that the eldest sons shared the same two or three names, in different combinations, over the generations, and I quickly pulled the family tree back to an ancestor born in Doesburg, The Netherlands, in 1790.

I have to confess that, as someone who loves to poke around old documents, this was almost too easy. Where’s the thrill of the hunt if the prey is caught in 45 minutes? Because really, as any good sleuth – from Sherlock Holmes to Harriet the Spy and Nancy Drew – knows, it’s not ultimately about the prey at all, it’s about the journey.

I’m not yet sure what I will do with what are still relatively random bits of information, but I’m sure a plan will develop itself…….in the meantime, I will keep sniffing around. There are bound to be some treasures hidden in out of the way corners…


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