Thursday, February 17, 2011

My Strange Addiction: Ancestry.com

Recently I have been watching a show on TLC called my "My Strange Addiction" which profiles such unusual proclivities as the obsessive compulsive eating of couch cushions, drain cleaner and household detergents.  I suppose I identify with the show because I myself have a strange little addiction...its called ancestry.com.


For those who are not familiar ancestry.com is the web-based product of Mormon ingenuity and the desire to baptize the dead.  It is essentially an enormous database of public records available in PDF that minions in a basement somewhere in Salt Lake City have transcribed and catalogued so that you can enter in whatever information you think you might know about your family and then the search engine pulls off the rest.  So given this information...why is it so darn addicting?

This is how I searched my great-great-grandfather...

Frequent readers of the blog will know that I inherited an attic full of old photos and memorabilia and it bothers me to no end so see those piles of old photos and postcards and letters sitting in drawers and have the faces in those pictures looking up at me anonymously.  Every one of them has a name and a story and I think it is not an overstatement to say that I literally am being haunted by these old photos to the point that my 2:00 am Netflix viewing addiction has been usurped by an almost pathological need to use ancestry.com to figure out who all of these people are.

Here's a sampling of one of these mystery people from the photos in my attic...

I keep finding photos of this woman...

Here she is again on the right...

and here she is again standing behind my great-grandparents  on their
 wedding day (upper right)


I have managed to successfully identify several other mystery people by deciphering the scribbled names on the back of old photos and careful ancestry.com searches and every time I am able to do that its a strange sort of existential victory that I can't quite explain.  Here's how my addiction plays out:

I will take a picture like this one below...



The back of this photo is dated 1916 and it simply reads "Sanders cousins with Esther and Helen".  Well I know who Esther and Helen are because I can easily recognize the little faces of my grandmother's sisters.  Esther is the second from the right and Helen is the one standing in the center. But the Sanders kids I was unfamiliar with.  This drove me nut for a couple of days.  Who were these kids?

Well I had the fact that they were cousins to work with so I decided to work backwards.  I knew my great-grandma, only had one brother named George and he never had any children and my great-grandpa had sisters and none of them married anyone named Sanders...so I deduced that they must be second cousins.  Okay, so I had to work back further.  I looked in the old family Bible and found that my great-great-grandmother Strathellen McGregor had a sister named Minnie McGregor who married a Samuel Sanders in 1881.

I looked them up on ancestry.com and then worked my way down.  According the Federal Census of 1900 the Sanders family lived in Chicago and had a son named Walter.  On a hunch I followed Walter and found that he had married a woman named Mabel and that in 1916 they would have had three kids, Maybelle, Olive and Walter who would have been 6, 4 and 2 respectively corresponding with the approximate ages of the kids in the photo.


Census from 1900

Census from 1920

So my next step was to tag the photo and upload it to ancestry.com so that if anyone out there is a member of the Sanders family (which I guess would make them a fifth cousin to me) they would be able to see their relatives.  (FYI:  I did find these distant relations and they were overjoyed to see the photo)  And like I said earlier...just figuring out who these people were, identifying them and putting their picture up on ancestry.com in the public forum, just made me feel like I had won some sort of existential victory.  Stupid as it may sound, when I can match a name and dates to a face I feel like I have somehow made them...well, I suppose the word is...matter.

I am sure that a century ago if someone had told them that in a hundred year's time, after they were dead and gone some chick with insomnia would be scouring old public documents and family Bibles to try to prove their existence it would probably have depressed them or given the fact they were Seventh-day Adventists they would probably have scoffed at the idea the Apocalypse had not already taken place.  But whatever their thoughts on the matter might have been it makes me feel somehow relevant for making them somehow seem relevant in the massive mysterious cosmic scheme of things.

Now its bad enough that I literally have somewhere around 5000 old photos in my attic...but I feel this deep urge to acquire more.  Sick, right?  This weekend I was in Sacramento and my cousin Matt, his beautiful wife Kirsten and their two adorable little girls and I went to an antique fair under the freeway by Poverty Ridge.  As I walked through the stalls looking at cool thing after cool thing I couldn't help but feel this overwhelming sense of sadness when I passed a table full of amazing old photographs.

Photos at the antique fair in Sacramento

On this one table, (which I managed to get a quick shot of with my iPhone) there appeared to be the entire photo collection of a couple who appeared to have gotten married in the 1920s.  Their beaming faces in their wedding portraits particularly called out to me and for about twenty minutes I stood there wanting to buy them and take them home and try to figure out who they were...when another antique hunter gave me his two cents...

"You know, these pictures are here because these people probably didn't have family when they died and nobody cared so an estate sales person scooped up all of these photos.  Unless you have an art project I'd just keep on moving because nobody cares about these old pictures."

I cared!  But sadly, despite how much I cared there was a little voice in my head telling me to sort through all of the mystery men and women in the photos I already had cluttering up my house back in LA before acquiring more.  Plus, I didn't have enough cash on hand.  So I regretfully walked away from that photo collection...but it has been eating at me ever since.

Then today, as I was perusing Google Blogger's "Blogs of Note" I came across this fabulous blog after my own heart called "Who Will Tell Their Story?"  It shows old photos with the little bits of research that the author Julie Cahill Tarr has been able to conduct based on the clues she finds in the "orphaned" photos.  What is more amazing is that she has been able to reunite some people with their lost relative's photos.  I know some will say that this all seems kind of morbid...and to those I say "P'shaw!"  I think I can speak for Julie Cahill Tarr when I describe my own draw to this type of investigation...this need to the tell the stories of the people in these "orphaned" photos is just a little gesture in time and space to give some sort of meaning to the lives of those who walked this earth before us and helped to create, even in the most immeasurably minute way, the world we now inhabit.  And I will say it once more...each time you can put a name to a previously anonymous face in an old daguerreotype it is like a small existential victory...helping to feel like at least for a brief moment in time that person mattered.
    

3 comments:

Bill A said...

Yea, old unclaimed photos bother me to. It just always seems like someone should be out there who cared about these people.

Julie Cahill Tarr said...

I'm glad you have been able to identify some of your family in all those photos and learn more about them! Thanks for sharing your story. And of course, thanks for the shout out!

peshagh said...

I feel the same way when I see old photographs and think the work you and others are doing to reconnect them to their families is wonderful. Many people are working on their geneaology. Locating photos of those family members is quite a find!