Family History or Time Travel?

When I was younger, and getting to know people (generally boys or girls I was attracted to and wanted to woo), I would give them a list of 20 questions and ask them to answer them all. It would either be done in person, on the phone, via a letter or more recently, via email/chat. These questions would be all about getting to know the other person better, find commonality and hopefully present myself as somewhat mysterious, enigmatic and far more intellectual than I am.



Which time period would you most like to live in and why?

Very important question I would ask people I fancy

My answer to that question would often depend on their answer (because, remember, I was trying to get them to fancy me, so I had to be as similar to them as possible. Yay, psychology!) and I’d say anything from “Ancient Egypt” to “200 years in the future”. I wasn’t really thinking about it. Sure, I was interested, but my answer was generally not genuine.

Being a genealogist, I get to look into the lives of so many different people, from different backgrounds, places and times. Whilst most of the research I do is in the British Isles, one county to the next can provide completely different customs, events and names. Add time to this and these lands present an immeasurable amount of genealogical and historical variety.

Looking at the rest of my family and where they’re from, we need to add Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Eastern Europe into the mix.



Gold miner’s cottage at Hill End, NSW, Australia. Photograph: Bernard Holtermann

To pose that question to myself today means I need to really sit back and think. Sure, I could answer something glib like “Oooh, the roaring twenties” or “the middle ages” – but what does that really mean? When we think of those two eras, in particular, we probably think of Flappers and Knights/Damsels, respectively. But we know that to think of an era in such a simplistic manner is to completely gloss over what was really going on then and what life would be like were I to time travel and spend the rest of my days there.


Would I be able to ignore my modern way of thinking and take on board the beliefs and desires of people in the 19th century?


Would I want to live in Shetland in the 1800s, when my ancestor, Robert Scollay, was forced to leave and travel to New Zealand due to poor economic opportunity, land clearances, and agricultural failures? What would it be like experiencing poverty, uncertainty and fear? Would I want to get on a ship to travel to the other side of the world – not knowing what I would encounter, and knowing I would never see my family again?

Would I be a strong pioneer in New Zealand? Would I be able to build a life from nothing. Find land, build a home, scrounge together a living from whatever I could do or find?

Would I want to do the same with my ancestors in Australia? Could I force first peoples from their land in order to build colonies of New South Wales, Victoria or Van Diemen’s Land? Would I keep my head down and ignore what was going on around me? Would I be able to ignore my modern way of thinking and take on board the beliefs and desires of people in the 19th century?

Or perhaps I’d like to travel to Sweden in the 16th century? Live and learn about life and the seasons with my family in Västra Götaland and Skåne. Spend my days on the farm with the cows and sheep and work from dawn to dusk helping to maintain the household?


Robert the Bruce facial reconstruction

I could go to another time, the 13th century, back to Scotland, and the Bruce clan, with my ancestor Matilda and her brother, Robert, who would become known as Robert the Bruce. What would my life be like as the daughter of a Baron and Countess? Living in a land in turmoil, with in-fighting and threats from England? Knowing that my position and life could be used to determine the course of political and personal life for so many in the land?

These are questions I now often ask myself when I am doing research (for myself or clients) and it is why I find it so terribly important to put as much context into my research as possible. Looking at my tree while I write this article, I see so many names, so many dates with lifespans, marriages, and other events. They are all part of who I am and have created a legacy that will last, but who were they? Really?

Family history is time travel. We don’t need a magic spell or a set of standing stones to be able to go back through the years and discover what life was like. We can find so much information from our ancestors and incredible research done by so many genealogists and historians. Adding to this body of research is so important and will be invaluable to future generations. I am proud to be a part of it, and vow to do more.

From this point, when I go over previous research or do further research into my ancestors, I will not move on to another generation until I have exhausted all possible avenues and repositories of information for the people in the current generation being researched. I want to create the story of how my family became to be and that starts with the families that went before.

I will be reproducing some of that research here, and in the coming months will be publishing papers on my ancestors from Shetland, along with information about the people over the years who lived in one house in Sussex.

(A huge thank you to Janet Few for inspiring this article.)

MyCanvas Guest Blog – A Beginner’s Guide to Swedish Genealogy

Have Swedish family history and not sure how to get started? I share how to get started in this guest blog post for MyCanvas! Learn common Swedish genealogy words, and tricks to untangling Swedish family names.


DNA – learning to expect the unexpected

This is the first part in a multi-part blog series about DNA testing and genealogy.

After 20+ years of genealogical research, I like to think I know my family history pretty well. As an Aussie, I am a big of a genealogical mongrel, or as my nan used to refer to her dog, Cindy, a “bitsa” as in “bits of this and bits of that”. It’s pretty simple, really:
  • Lots of Scots
  • Lots of Irish
  • Lots of English
  • A smattering of Swedes
  • Four convicts

So I was relatively certain of the results of any genealogical DNA test I would do. I imagined it would look something like this:
Source: Ancestry.com
When I decided to try the Ancestry DNA test, I was a bit put off by the fact that I’d need to gob into a test tube. Someone as classy and sophisticated as me simply does not spit, regardless of the scientific results. But for the sake of science, history, genealogy and my own bloody curiosity I built a bridge and got over this particular wave of discomfort. (This is proof that I am actually on my way to becoming a true professional).

To be quite honest, when the test arrived I was soon quite happily gobbing away into the plastic tube.

The influence of Apple of product packaging and presentation has been clear for a number of years. Clean lines, lots of white. Minimalism is key. I was, however, surprised to see that this influence had extended into the realm of genealogical DNA testing.

Photo: Ancestry.com
It’s quite simply a beautiful product. It’s a shame one has to mar it with saliva, but needs must.

Even the website to register the test is squeaky clean. For my web design friends – is this a matter of clean design, or is it a matter of familiarity (from using Apple products) and therefore an increased sense of trust? Answers on a perfectly and ethically designed website, please.

After spitting in the tube, adding the DNA stabilising solution and giving it all a good shake, I slipped it into a bio-hazard bag and into a lovely little postage-paid box that came with the kit. I then sealed it all up and popped it into the post-box.

The lack of immediate gratification was a wee bit disappointing, and the wait until I got my results felt extremely long.

The website provides tracking information from the moment you register the test. I checked the site every day to see if its status had changed from “Activated” to “Arrived” and more importantly “Processing”.

After around a week, the status changed from “Activated” to “Processing” rather quickly. I was then into the longest wait-phase. 6-8 weeks while the testing is done.

I waited impatiently for the test to confirm all my research and particularly looked forward to seeing if Britain, Ireland or Scandinavia came out on top. I expected it to kind of the way Eurovision does, with Scandinavia winning and Britain and Ireland getting a few points somewhere down the line.

I also joked that I hoped something completely obscure would turn up my results and hit us from out of left field. “OMG I HOPE IT SHOWS I’M JEWISH” I thought, knowing my step-father (who is Jewish) would find it hilarious.

I checked the website daily for an update and was growing more and more disappointed as no results were posted. “Maybe your DNA is so weird they’re having difficulty finding anything human in it,” commented one friend. I started to think he may be right.

No results. No results. No results.

As with the proverbial watched pot, as soon as I stopped thinking about it and obsessively checking I got an email. “Your DNA results are available.”

With a sense of immense excitement (and trepidation, perhaps I *am* alien) I logged into the site to see just who I am.

To say the results surprised me would be an understatement.

I was incredibly surprised to see both Scandinavia and Great Britain so far down the list. I was also overjoyed to actually see European Jewish in the list (my step father merely rolled his eyes when I told him).

Looking into the information on the data further, this is what is noted for the different regions in which my DNA has been.
Location
Primarily Located In
Also Found In
Europe West
Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein
England, Denmark, Italy, Slovenia, Czech Republic
Ireland
Ireland, Wales, Scotland
France, England
European Jewish
Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Israel
Germany, France, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Romania, Bosnia, Serbia, Estona
Iberian Peninsula
Spain, Portugal
France, Morocco, Algeria, Italy
Scandinavia
Sweden, Denmark, Norway
Great Britain, France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, the Baltic States, Finland
Great Britain
England, Scotland, Wales
Ireland, France, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Italy
Asia South
India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka
Myanmar (Burma)

France seems to be the main connection point between all the regions except for Asia South meaning (in my 100% scientific opinion) my potentially French ancestors got around a bit.

I’m reading as much as possible about DNA testing for genealogy and the impact it can have on research. I shall write a future blog post about how such testing can influence the research one does and the results of research that people not only find but really want to find.

Genea-what-ogy?

Oh look another genealogy blog. What’s different about this one? For the moment, not much, it’s quite empty. Unlike my family tree. A couple of thousand people (including extended family) and counting.

In October I will begin postgraduate studies with the University of Strathclyde in Genealogy, Palaeography and Heraldry. As I move from being an amateur genealogist to (hopefully) a professional genealogist, I would like to document my experience. While I feel I have a lot of experience in researching family history, as my studies progress I am certain that my methodology and understanding of documents and processes will change.

Hopefully, it will make for interesting reading.

So, why does a customer support manager with 15+ years professional experience decide to change career so extremely?

Well, as with all (good) stories – Once upon a time…

When I was 14 years old, I snuck into my grandmother’s bedroom, rooted around under her bed, and withdrew an old tattered suitcase that contained a stack of papers and a magnifying glass. This suitcase held the entirety of her research into my grandfather’s family history. I recall looking through the barely legible photocopied pages in wonder, marvelling at the old handwriting, and trying to understand the Swedish in which they were written.
I was, of course, caught by my grandmother and told not to go through other people’s belongings, but I was hooked. I asked her to show me how she found all the documents, how she read them and also asked her to teach me Swedish!
From that moment I helped my grandmother with the research, and began learning about genealogy and how to trace my family history.
Fast forward to 1998 and I am now living in France. I’m studying part time with the Open University for a BSc and I am still fascinated by genealogy. I knew my grandfather’s uncle had fought in WWI in France, and I decided to find out more. This was the early stages of online genealogical research, and through message boards, local historical research associations and the Imperial War Graves Commission, I was able to discover not only where my great, great uncle Olaf was buried, but also exactly which battle he was in when he died, and what likely happened between 1916 when he was reported MIA and 1930 when his body was discovered.

Private (Pte) Olaf Milford Johanson, 11th Reinforcements, 12th Battalion, AIF.

I was the first family member to visit his grave in the Somme region of France, a very moving moment for myself and my entire family.
Since I have begun researching I have also managed to find living relatives in Sweden, have visited the home built by my Swedish ancestor and have gotten in touch with distant relatives back in Australia, as well as in the United States and Scotland.
I have helped friends get started with genealogy, coaching them on the best research methods, basic tips and do’s and don’ts. Helping other people discover information about their families is what drives me to continue my own research, and is what makes me want to share this passion with others.

Following my degree completion I moved into working in the computer game industry, and managed to create a successful career for myself. In recent years, however, I have been wanting a change and after much reflection (and encouragement from those close to me), have decided I wish to make my lifelong passion a professional reality.