Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Genuine Card-Carrying Genealogist!

Two years ago I could not spell genealogist. Now I are one!

But it's not really my fault. You see, I never set out to be a genealogist. From my earliest interest to the present moment, genealogy has never been more than a pastime -- a fascinating hobby. It's not my life's work, by any means ... although it has done a lot of work in my life!

Researching my ancestry has changed me in some very fundamental ways these past two years. It has reshaped my thinking about the history of our nation and our world as I have come to see and understand history as a family matter, rather than just a bunch of meaningless names, places, and dates in a history book. It has caused me to re-evaluate my role in society as my understanding of my family's role in shaping society has become clearer to me. And it has redefined my concept of family and familial relationships.

I still don't really consider myself a genealogist. Its my avocation; not my vocation. I still picture myself as a rank amateur, lacking the tools and experience I think a real genealogist should have. But the state of Connecticutt doesn't see me that way. They consider me a licensed, card-carrying genealogist! Here's how it happened:

This past June, my daughter and I set out for New England on our second genealogical road-trip together. It's pretty much like a road-trip straight out of Animal House. We just throw a bunch of random clothes into suitcases, toss them in the back of my car, figure out which way we are heading, and take off down the road with very little idea of where we are going or what we will do when we get there. Having few preconceived expectations pretty much ensures that we won't be disappointed with the results!

All we really depart with is a list of ancestors we want to research further and the names of the towns in which we know they either were born, lived, or died. Then we simply go to those towns and see what we can find out about them. Now, honestly, does that sound professional to you? Me neither! But the results have been two of the most enjoyable and relaxing vacations I've ever taken, some wonderful experiences shared with my daughter, and some spectacularly meaningful discoveries about our family tree.

So, on the second day of our trip we arrived in Woodbury, Connecticut. Woodbury is the final resting place of Samuel Jenner I, who was our immigrant ancestor on my paternal grandmother's side of the family and the person whose mysteries sparked much of my interest in genealogy (see A Tale of Two Samuels). I had alrady read the passages in William Cothren's History of Ancient Woodbury about the Jenner family, so we knew that Samuel Jenner I had acquired land in Woodbury in 1682, married Hannah Hinman in 1684, that the couple had all their children in Woodbury -- beginning with Sarah Jenner in 1685 -- and that Samuel had died in Woodbury in 1738. Or was approach was simple and direct: wander around, visit as many landmarks and resources as possible, and ask endless questions of anyone who would listen. So we visited the library, town hall, historical society, graveyards, historical landmarks, and tried to drive up and down every street in the area. We spoke with librarians, town officials, historical society members, and practically everyone we met. And we were given practically unlimited access to any information we wanted.

When we finished at Woodbury, we next went to Newtown, Connecticutt. Again, we spent hours in the vault at the town clerk's office, in the genealogy section of the library, and pestered everyone who didn't run away from us. But when we got to Milford, Connecticutt it was a very different story!

The town clerk at Milford insisted that I had to be a genuine, authentic, bona fide, card-carrying professional genealogist in order to view the records of my own ancestors or anyone else. She claimed it was state law. When I asked what I had to do to become a licensed genealogist, she told me that all I had to do was join any genealogical society that issued membership cards to its members.

An hour-and-a-half later I was standing in the offices of the Connecticut Society of Genealogists. And what I expected to be a total waste of a half day of our trip turned out to be one of its highlights. The people at the CSG couldn't have been more helpful to us. My membership fee was the best $35.00 I spent on the entire trip! We walked out with more information on our ancestors in one afternoon than I had gathered in months of web-surfing. And most importantly, I walked out with that magical blue card pictured at the top of this post.

I am now -- at least in the eyes of the town clerk of Milford, if not the entire state of Connecticut -- a genuine, authentic, bona fide, fully-licensed, certified, qualified, and ordained professional genealogist!

Ironically, I don't feel the least bit more qualified now that I have that card in my wallet than I did before I received it. But I must be, because the town clerk in Milford gave me the "keys to the kingdom" -- full, unsupervised access to the records vault at Town Hall. I didn't have to pass any test. I wasn't fingerprinted. I didn't even have to show my birth certificate or driver's license to prove that I am really me. All I had to do was plunk down my $35.00. Now, of course, I know exactly what transpired. If I did abscond with the identities of half the residents of Milford and defraud them, the town clerk can glibly claim to have done "due diligence" in requiring me to show my card and point the gnarled finger of blame at the CSG for not having properly vetted me. It's bureaucratic responsibility-shirking, pure and simple! On the other hand, there are only two kinds of people who would make a 3-hour round trip to Hartford and pay a $35.00 fee to obtain a genealogist's identification card: a true genealogist or a crook.

Good thing for the town of Milford that I'm not both!


  1. Well, I guess an encounter with an officious clerk can have a positive outcome! Ditto your comments on the appreciation for history genealogy provides. This made my husband happy because he is the "history guy" in the family. It is also nice to read that your daughter is involved in the search; wish I could get my daughters interested.

  2. I think several things intersected at the right moment to pique my daughter's interest in her ancestors: (1) finding out that most of her ancestors arrived with the Pilgrims, (2) finding out she had a Revolutionary War patriot ancestor right when her class was studying the Revolutionary War in school, (3) discovering that several of her own ancestors had been written about in local histories and had led interesting and dangerous lives, and (4) discovering that she was descended from European royalty.

    With all those things combined it became "cool" to her. The secret for your daughters may be just finding that personal connection to the past that makes it cool to them, too.