Friday, January 8, 2010

The Kindness of Strangers

Each new year seems to encourage a time of reflection on the year just past, and New Year 2010 was no exception to this. Among my many reflections on the events of 2009, my family, my work, and my friends, I realized that 2009 had produced remarkable progress for me in breaking through several major genealogical barriers.

In both major lines of my mother's family -- Willis on her father's side and Kerr on her mother's side -- I began 2009 having been at an impass for years. On the Willis side, we only knew what we had all known for decades: that her father was Leonard John Willis (my namesake), her grandfather was William Willis, and her great-grandfather was Judge William Willis, QC. On the Kerr side, we knew even less: only that her mother was Winnifred Violet Kerr and her grandfather was the Rev. John Kerr. Despite years of inquiry, we had never been able to learn more about either side of her family, and neither my mother nor I knew of any living relatives who would have any more information on them than we already possessed.

But that was to change dramatically in 2009!

Early in the year, a fellow genealogist recommended that I check the UK website, Scotland's People, for information about my great-grandfather, the Rev. John Kerr. That led me to discover that his father was David Kerr (born 1828 in Dalton, Dumfriesshire, Scotland), a fact I noted in my July 2009 blog entitled, "It's CARE; Not CUR." In November, I stumbled across another UK website while googling around -- a genealogy community called RootsChat. Within 30 days, I had learned another three generations of our Kerr ancestry! So, by year end we knew that David Kerr's father was John Kerr (born 1786), his grandfather was John Kerr (born 1756), and his great-grandfather was James Kerr (born 1718), all of Dumfriesshire, Scotland.

Similarly, by mid-year I had discovered two more generations of my Willis ancestry. William Willis's father was Thomas Willis, Jr. of Dunstable, Bedfordshire, and his grandfather was Thomas Willis, Sr. of Toddington, Bedfordshire. Furthermore, I had also learned that Judge William Willis had served a term as a member of Parliament from Colchester, in addition to his years of service as a Queen's Council judge.

But, what caught my notice as I reflected on these discoveries was that none of them were the result of the new technologies I was employing. To be sure, new and improved technologies played a supporting role in the discoveries, but what actually led me to them was a who; not a what. In fact, several who's.

It was the people on RootsChat who provided the names, birthplaces, marriage information, and memorial inscriptions for my Kerr ancestors. This was information they had spent years collecting. Several of them live in or near Dumfriesshire and had gathered much of the information by visiting old parish churches, burial grounds, and local libraries and town offices. It was information some of them had made considerable expense obtaining, yet they all shared it freely with me. Similarly, it was people on the staff of Toddington Baptist Church who provided me with information and copies from the church's old records concerning the Willis family.

Genealogy is all about relationships. Ordinarily, we focus on the relationships between ourselves and the ancestors we are researching, but I've found that the relationships we build -- often with (formerly) complete strangers -- are equally important and more rewarding than the relationships we learn about in the process.