Will Exploring Your Family History Unearth The Unexpected?
Actress Katey Sagal discovered a surprising fact about her family history when she appeared on the “Who Do You Think You Are?” TV show, which features celebrities tracing their roots.
Some of her distant ancestors were Amish – a bit of information that somehow failed to work its way down through the ages to her generation.
Sagal’s experience uncovering such a fascinating, but previously unknown family fact isn’t that far off the mark from what others could expect to find when they start tracing their family lines, says Ceil Lucas, a sociolinguist, amateur genealogist and author of How I Got Here: A Memoir.
“The past is chock-full of secrets ready to be revealed,” says Lucas, whose exploration of her own family history provided the stories she includes in her memoir, such as the tale of an ancestor who was involved in the Oklahoma Land Rush.
“Each layer can be richer than the last, revealing people you never knew about and, with any luck, your family’s connections to major events in history.”
She offers a few pointers to others who want to peel back the mystery and learn more about their ancestors:
- Start with what you already know about your family and work back from there. Lucas began investigating her family history three decades ago, about the same time she began making notes on what would become a memoir of her childhood in Guatemala City and Rome, Italy. This expatriate upbringing left her with a sense of “I’m not from here” – “here” being the U.S., where she was born. But her genealogical research, which revealed her first ancestors coming to the U.S. from Scotland in 1654 and England in 1679, showed her just how “from here” she is.
- Take advantage of the many genealogical resources available these days. Community colleges often offer genealogy classes that can help propel you on your journey. When it comes to research or DNA testing that provides revelations about your origins, several websites are invaluable, such as www.ancestry.com, www.23andme.com and www.myheritage.com.
- If you plan to write a memoir, remember that the life story you’re telling will be an even richer narrative if you do your genealogical homework and include those stories of the relatives from your distant past. “Your ancestors are part of who you are,” Lucas says. “So you should weave them into your memoir and let them provide an added texture to your tale.”
“Filling in the genealogical picture has thoroughly shaped how I think about myself,” Lucas says. “In a way, genealogy has given me ‘memories’ of those who came before me, even 10 generations before me. I have pictures in my mind of the places they left and pictures of where they ended up. Their stories have become mine.”
Ceil Lucas, author of How I Got Here: A Memoir, is a sociolinguist. She holds a bachelor’s degree in French and Art History, a master’s degree in French and Italian, and a doctorate in Linguistics. She spent 40 years as a university professor and researcher. She is the editor and co-author of 22 books.