Wednesday Wonders: Up the tree and down the rabbit hole

Due to certain things I recently learned from my DNA, I’ve gone back to the online family history records maintained by the Mormons and, say what you want about the church, when it comes to genealogy, they are an amazing resource because they’ve kept copies of everything, originally in multiple locations, and now online.

Of course, they got into genealogy for all the wrong reasons. Originally, it was because they did not admit black members, so all of those family trees were designed to weed out people who might violate the reprehensible “one drop rule.” They justified this based on the so-called Curse of Ham.

Eventually, the Church did start to admit black members — they couldn’t get enough white ones, apparently, plus they discovered Africa as fertile ground for planting their missionaries — but I can never bring up the role of the Church of Latter Day Saints in giving such a boost to genealogists without including the really nasty reason why.

But the fascinating thing about genealogy is the history it can expose as the people and places in your tree come to light. Since my DNA test showed that I’m definitely descended from my father’s mother, I decided to fill in her tree and did it methodically.

Basically, I started with her father, and filled in what parts of his line I didn’t have already, building by adding each successive generation of parents and then following the paternal line up until I hit the earliest ancestor.

Next, I came back down and did the same for his mother, also following her paternal line. Once that was done, it was time go back up my great-grandfather’s lineage, only this time filling in the tree for each wife at each step.

Interesting thing, by the way: It’s amazing how often the people keeping the records really seemed to have no interest in the wives. I’ve had many a line that continues back centuries for the males that peters out after a few generations with someone having an unknown wife with no birth or death dates, or no spouse listed at all, and then no parents after that.

At least this made it easy to fill out the matrilineal part of that first great grand-father out of four — well, to be precise, my paternal grandmother’s father. I repeated the steps basically moving across the line, so my grandmother’s mother was next — although I’m still working up her lines and haven’t even gotten to my paternal grandfather’s ancestors.

One other note: I’ve found it necessary, on the way up, to only include the children I’m descended from after about five generations. This isn’t to discount the other kids in any way. It’s just that some of these people had a metric fuckton of children, and including them all makes it really hard to hop up and down the line when I’m trying to find the next ancestor to enter into the program.

Surprisingly, though, in those (not infrequent) cases of cousins marrying, the common ancestor will usually manage to reveal themselves when then program suddenly asks me, “Is this John Jones the same as this John Jones?” And they usually are.

Oh — I don’t use “Jones” facetiously here. I apparently have a ton of Jones ancestors who were in Kentucky and who definitely married cousins a lot.

But that’s something else you quickly learn when you do genealogy: The cousin thing was totally the norm until fairly recent times. Why? Because most people never traveled very far from the town or village they were born in. Your dating pool can be limited to second or third cousins very quickly.

Another thing I learned from this exercise: I am apparently related to the Breckenridge Family, who started out very influential in local politics in Kentucky, but then took it national. Among its prominent members are a U.S. Representative, two Senators, and a Vice President, mostly in the 19th century.

And this brings up the ugly history of John Cabell Breckinridge, who started out as a U.S. Senator from Kentucky but then wound up as Secretary of War for the Confederacy. Oops. He fled the country after the war, winding up with his family in Canada via England, but eventually returned after President Andrew Johnson removed his own spine and offered amnesty to all former Confederate officials.

At least I’m not directly descended from him. But this wasn’t the only fascinating thing I learned about America from doing this.

Nope. That would be the discovery of one of my 8th great-grandfathers, Christen Thomasson, who was born in 1654 in a place called New Sweden. And where was New Sweden?

Well, nowadays, it’s known as part of the states of Pennsylvania and Delaware, but for 17 years, from 1638 to 1655, it was a Swedish colony in North America. It was in the year after Christen was born, in fact, that New Sweden came to an end as they lost another battle in an ongoing war with the Dutch, who took it over — although my Thomasson ancestors did not appear to move.

And yes, the Dutch had colonies here, too — probably not a surprise because you’ve heard that famous story of how they originally bought what would later become Manhattan and called it New Amsterdam. (And the territory may not even have been owned by the natives who sold it to them. Fun!)

Now, I’ve long known about the Dutch and British and French and Spanish colonies in the new world, but the Swedish one was totally new to me. Even more interesting is that my mother’s ancestors managed to wind up living near what had once been part of New Sweden, except about two hundred years after it had ceased to be a Swedish colony.

It remained part of the Dutch colony of New Netherland until it was all finally seceded to England in 1674, nineteen years after the Dutch had taken it from the Swedes.

Oh… one other dirty little secret from history for you: All of this Dutch colonization wasn’t so much carried out by the government back in the Netherlands. Rather, it was perpetrated by a corporation, the Dutch West India Company. One of their major imports to their colonies were slaves kidnapped from Africa.

They’re not to be confused with the Dutch East India Company, which was an even bigger, vertically integrated top-down monopoly that focused on exploiting India and the far east for their spices, cloth, foodstuffs, and whatever else they could suck out while they weren’t also busy colonizing.

I’m sure there are some modern-day object lessons hiding in the stories of the bad shit that happens when government takes the reins off and lets private companies get that powerful, but I’ll let you find them for yourselves.

Oh yeah… the Dutch East India Company was financed by bonds and private investors, not by the government.

And these are the rabbit holes you run down when you start seriously climbing your family tree again.

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