I'll never forget the thrill of discovering my great-grandparents' names. I know that may sound odd to many of you, but my father never talked about his family; hence, the reason this blog is called "Finding Ellen." But discovering a new ancestor is much like only eating half of the Hershey bar. Simply not possible to stop after the first bite, and so began a (now) twelve-year-long habit.
Three years ago, shortly after we moved from Cincinnati to NW Arkansas, I stopped by the local Family History Center and fell in love with the volumes of books and the quiet hum of the microfilm readers and before too long was asked if I'd like to volunteer. I will say that the only thing I like better than researching my own ancestors is helping someone discover theirs.
Not everyone that visits a Family History Center is a church member. In fact, most visitors are not. Having said that, church members are strongly encouraged to research their ancestors and so oddly enough, I assumed that I'd bumped into a whole community of data junkies.
Not so much. In fact, one young woman told me that doing the research was more like writing a never-ending term paper. I like writing. I love research and so of course, I didn't get it. So I offered to do hers for her.
The next week, she showed up with a large blue plastic storage bin full of papers.
"Have you done any research at all?" I asked. "It might help to understand your goals. Two or three generations?" "Well" she replied, "my aunt said that she'd researched the family clear back to Charlemagne. I'd like to start there."
Now, let me say that I'm a little skeptical of anything I find much earlier than the 1600s. Very few people could read or write. As a matter of a fact, it wasn't until 1440 and the invention of the printing press did scholars consider standardizing the written word. Since then the English written language has undergone at least two major revisions.
In 1806, Noah Webster published his first dictionary: A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. His follow-on publication in 1828: American Dictionary of the English Language sold for $20 for the two-volume set containing 70,000 entries...22,000 more entries than any previously published dictionary. Today, the current Webster's posts over 988,968 entries. The written language wasn't the only place to find recorded inconsistencies; the spelling of given and surnames changed, oftentimes with the recorder. Within my mother's family, Dudgeon is also spelled Dugean.
In 1086, William the Conqueror commissioned a two-volume text known as the Great and Little Domesday Books. These books provide a detailed record of all lands held by the king and his tenants and under tenants, and of the resources that went with those lands. They were written in a very abbreviated and stylized clerical Latin that provided such a challenge to translate that it wasn't until 1975 that the first of the 35 county volumes were printed.
In this country, very few records were kept of individuals unless you lived in a large town or owned enough land or property to be taxed. Even in the UK (my ancestors' origins), records were often destroyed to make space for others and even if records existed, there are so many Andrews, Johns, Marys and Anns that it's very hard to prove which of the Andrew-Mary parings are related to me, yet somehow this lady's aunt had traced her family to Charlemagne.
Let's close with a little math. The formula for the number of ancestors in a given generation is: 2n = x where n is the number of generations back and x equals the number of individuals in that generation.
I'm generation 0
My parents are generation 1 and it took 2 individuals to survive birth, meet and procreate for me to exist
My grandparents are generation 2 and it took 4 individuals to survive birth, meet and procreate for me to exist
Generation 3: 8 individuals
Generation 4: 16 individuals and so on.
Charlemagne lived roughly from 742 to 814. We'll make the math simple and just set his year as 750 AD and mine at 1950 AD. That would make him my 38th great-grandparent, or generation #40. Based on an average generation time of 30 years, that means that 1,099,511,627,776 individuals would have needed to have survived birth, met and procreated for me to exist.
Plus someone to write it all down so that I can verify that I'm actually related to Grandfather Charlemagne.
(...although there is something awfully familiar about his eyes...)
I want to thank Diana Gale Matthiesen (http://dgmweb.net/Ancillary/OnE/NumberAncestors.html) for not making me do the math myself.