How I became a genealogist: Part One

Alicia Crane WilliamsI got a chuckle out of Bob Anderson’s preface to Elements of Genealogical Analysis, where he described his path to genealogy through military intelligence and molecular biology. It reminded me of the days back in the 80s and 90s when we belonged to a small group of Boston-area genealogists who gathered every month for a pot-luck dinner and genealogy talk. The dinners were the brainchild of Ann Lainhart and, although informal, the group at one point included the editors of the Register, The American Genealogist, and The Mayflower Descendant. When you have the opportunity to sit and listen to the likes of Jane Fiske, Ruth Ann Sherman, Bob Anderson, David Dearborn, Melinde and George Sanborn, and Roger Joslyn to name a few, one cannot help but learn genealogy.

During one of these dinners we asked each other how we came to be genealogists. Only one of us, David, had actually majored in history as an undergraduate. The rest of us entered college with little or no idea of pursuing history, much less genealogy, as a profession – I certainly didn’t when I entered the School of Agriculture at the University of Connecticut!

But then how did I end up being a professional genealogist? Fate and ancestors.

My four years of undergraduate work as an “Aggie” major were simply a “ruse” to get me close to horses. Born horse crazy into a non-horse family (my mother was terrified of them), my opportunities to work with horses were restricted to a couple of weeks of summer camp each year and a few “off season” riding lessons. It was my father, in fact, who out of the blue one day suggested that I go to agricultural college. I did, enjoyed it, and graduated without any employable skills, since I didn’t have a family farm to go back to.

Next I followed in my mother’s footsteps. She had graduated from Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School in Boston in 1928, and I had often heard tales of how wonderful it was. Mother was always preaching that a woman needed an employable skill in case she was widowed. In looking at my options as a young woman in those ancient days – marriage, librarian, teacher, nurse, secretary – since I wasn’t overly fond of children or blood and pain, I knew my only option was to become an Executive Secretary.

Next time, horse pedigrees and disappearing umbilical lines.

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

21 thoughts on “How I became a genealogist: Part One

  1. My venture into genealogy was prompted by a 2 page article in Family Circle Magazine in 1972. Newly married and 3,000 miles from home….I started on my husband’s family by interviewing all his elderly relatives and spending hours at the courthouse in the Prothonatary’s office. Of my favorite memories were all the Dockets: Deeds, Marriages, Deaths, Orphans Court…….but it was the Lunatics and Drunkards Docket that always caught my eye. Finally I got up the courage to ask what that was about…..It was the divorce Docket at one time those were the only grounds for Divorce! I was very lucky to have started so young. So many of the mysteries have subsequently be solved and several proved with DNA evidence! Kelly Wheaton

    1. Kelly — somehow it is always the lunatics and drunkards who interest us genealogists! There are still plenty of mysteries to be solved, so you won’t run out of new adventures, I promise.

  2. I started when I helped my mother-in-law update her published family genealogy, “Our Canadian Nears And Early Kin” (descendants of a 1710 Palatine immigrant) and then, at my mother’s request, updated her father’s family descendancy chart by compiling a Fabyan Genealogy that is now 600+ pages hardcopy (it is also all on CD). I also have all of my ancestors families on Legacy Family Tree software, including a Mayflower ancestor.
    Alicia, I have my mother’s “A Manual Of Style” copyright 1937 from the Boston Katherine Gibbs Schools; she would have been about 21, if that would be the right age to be there. On the upper right corner of the book, she has written her name, A2 (class?) and Locker 18-13.

    1. Howland, I still have my Manual of Style, too, and I think I had my mother’s from 1928 before I had to downsize and move. Once you’ve been through the wars with it, somehow becomes part of the family, too.

    2. in California A2 meant or at least A meant spring graduating and B meant winter graduate. But they applied in all grade levels.

      1. Sue – sorry for the delay. I checked my mother-in-law’s book and did not find any Appleman’s. Did the family go to the Red Hook/Rhinebeck area of New York State? In a small world situation, my mother-in-law’s ancestor and his fellow immigrants purchased land for a church and cemetery from one of my ancestors (British Land Grant is 1686).

    3. You are right. A-2 was the class designation. She was in the second section of the one-year program. The “Manual of Style” by Adelaide B. Hakes is the first one produced by Gibbs. It is the model for all manuals and handbooks that Gibbs ever published. The rules for figures, hyphens, word division, capitalization, and punctuation are comparable to later publications.

  3. Alicia, I well remember our BGG days and miss them. But you sell yourself short — I felt I was learning from YOU. We all had something different to bring to the group, and when we talked about problems we were working on, we all learned. I’d fallen into genealogy as an only child of an only child, living in a house built by a great-grandfather, and father (of English parentage) died young. I was there, but my family wasn’t, and I wanted to know who they were, so I’d poked away at my genealogy for nearly four decades more or less in a vacuum, in upstate New York.. When we moved to the Boston area, by chance I met the Shermans in the basement of the old Bristol County court house, and they took me under their wing. Then we had the BGG group. Those were the days!

    1. Hi Jane, Ann reminded me that my dates were off — the group met from 1984 to 1994! How the memory fades. I don’t remember knowing enough for others to learn from in those days, but do remember drinking in everyone else’s knowledge, as well as making lifelong friends. Doesn’t get better than that.

  4. I admit to having been a history major, both undergrad and graduate. But I started being interested in genealogy in elementary school. One great-grandfather had left a memoir which related that his ancestor had arrived in America as a pirate. On the other side we were supposedly descended from Ethan Allen. I wanted to know the facts! While in grad school, I had access to the Western Reserve Historical Society so I started researching there. Neither story is accurate, although they give clues – the pirate was a privateer on Long Island Sound during the Revolution, but his family actually arrived in 1631; on the other side they marched with Allen. Today, I’m still working on my own families and I help others with their research as a professional archivist.

    1. Karen, I never really liked History in school, but then those were the days of history of “Great white men,” so I hope it is much more interesting in schools today. I also have a mystery ancestor whose story “isn’t quite right,” but haven’t yet figured out the real one — but it is always good to have something to look forward to!

  5. I always wondered about my family history and asked my dad where we came from when I was a teenager. He said New Hampshire and that was about it. Unfortunately, I never questioned either of my family’s grandparents at the time. Many years later a friend and co-worker told me of his self taught genealogical quest to find his own family origins. I decided to do likewise. He gave me some tips on how to get started. He also told me he was going to join the S.A.R. when he finally got his documentation together. I grandly announced that I would beat him to that quest and off we went. A couple of years later my quest was obtained and it’s been an interesting, puzzling, surprising and wonderful 35 year+ journey since then.

  6. I got “INTO” genealogy because I was in an environment that I should have been told about before I was 17 years old, but wasn’t because it was not something you told children about in the days of Dr. Spock. “If the child did not ask, they did not get any answers”, I of course did not ask, because I did NOT know the questions to ask. However, I always did feel that there was something no one told me. When I had just graduated high school my family found out that my Mother had cancer and that she needed a very serious operation, and only had a 1 in 10 chance of coming off of the table alive. She had Mouth and Throat cancer. Back in 1962, there was a fraction of a survival rate, so my mother had to tell me that all of my records, my SS ID Card, my Drivers License, School records and anything else that was a Legal Document that I might have or would in the future have, had to be CHANGED…..WHY, I asked, Well, this man that you know as your Father, is not your father. Your last name is NOT Balch, so we have to take you to an attorney to get all of your records changed so that you can have all those records apply to you. We went to the Attorney, and I carried that sheet of paper that said “Claudia Beth Hill and Claudia Beth Balch are one in the same person, for now and evermore.” Then we went to northern Californian where I was to walk up to a front door and knock on it and ask for a certain man. I did and he came to the door and I and my bother met our Father for the first time since I was about three years old, when the Courts in Calif., denied his ability to see me anymore because of some problems he had. I only saw him a few times after that and really did not want anything to do with him because he seemed foreign to me, mentally, but I did remember how to get hold of him.

    Then when I was 26 and had a daughter who was starting to ask questions about my family, which I had no answers for, because my Mother died the year before she was born and my Step-father died the year after I found out I was not his daughter, I had to get hold of the man who was my father, Again, to find out a bit about my family and where I came from. A few years, a few letters and phone calls later, and he was killed in an accident. No more answers from him, and I still did NOT know where I came from. That led me to the Records Division in Sacramento, CA, and I still could not find anything – however, they did point me to the Genealogist’s at a Library. Thus started my journey to learning everything I could about the John Hill Family of Dorchester, MA and also of the John Balch Family of Beverly, MA. In the long run, it turns out that I actually am related to the Balch family, through marriages of descendants into other families that married into the Hill Family and the two families lived less than 15 miles from each other from 1240 until 1624, in Taunton, Somerset, England, and less than 55 miles from each other from 1624 to 1784 in MA. They were both among the first settlers of MA. from those early voyages to Plymouth, MA. John Balch arrived at Plymouth in 1624 and John Hill arrived at Plymouth in 1630., they shared many friends and jobs capabilities and much of their lives were very interactive with those who knew both families.

    I had a lot of work to do and a lot of information to find, but do and find it, I did. It took me many years to put it all together and NOW, I know who I am, where I came from, why I am so determined in many things, (it’s genetic) and I know a lot about the history of our Country and my place in it. My Mother met and married both of these men at different times in the 1940’s and way out west in Calif., where no one knew anything about the history of their pasts, except my real Father did, because he was still close to the family that he came from. They all came to California at different times and for many different reasons, but they actually came to build a nation. They were all integral people in the total founding and building of this Country, and although NOT one of them would ever know all I know about them, and their lives, I am so proud to be “from” them all. This knowledge, this pride, this history, this learning about my roots, has been a 30 year journey that I want to give to the rest of my family before I leave this place. That is WHY I AM A GENEALOGIST, although not Certified, I am looking into that as we sit and read these comments and articles, however, there are not many places for certification close to me, so I learned by the school of hard knocks, and I do everything I can to help point others in the right direction for their answers and I am a member of the DUP (Daughters of the Utah Pioneers) in Nevada. Still searching and helping others in their journeys of finding WHO THEY ARE….

    1. Claudia, First of all, you are a “certified” Genealogist even if you don’t have a certificate from anyone. What you’ve done is the reason for all genealogy. The people who have not yet discovered that the core of our selves is knowing where we came from are missing a part of themselves, but just don’t know it, yet. Good work.

  7. I started my search because I was interested in finding how my great Aunts belonged to Daughters of the Mayflower and if there were “Battles” on the Mayflower, there were not so it must come from the wives on the list but there were so many names there I stuck to finding info on the Battles name and thru some discussions on the various chat boards and info on some photos my great Aunt “Sally” gave me , was able to trace the name back to the soldiers or “Knights” that accompanied William the Conqueror to England from France. There are some books written on the family but since they are scarce and over $300, It will be a while before I see them but there is a lot of info on line. I wish I knew French, both because of the Connection to France but also my grandmother came from Quebec , she was French and Indian and worked as the upstairs maid in my GGRandfathers house. She and my Grandfather married and had 6 children but my father was 93 before he admitted we had Indian blood, that would be impossible to trace, at least for me. I have not lived in Massachusettes for 72 years so record chasing is almost impossible except on line but it was fun getting this far.

  8. thank you for your kind comment….. and that is also why I try to help others IF I have the ability to do so. Even not knowing the living breathing people involved in my ancestry, I learned so much about what makes me ME and it gave me back a lot of what was missing in my bringing up, it filled the empty void that was deep inside that somehow always haunted me..

  9. T’is that we who do this are somehow touched by the hand of the fate of our ancestors that endeavor us to the travail of this holy grail of studies – or perhaps the curse is upon us?? – This must be how I inheirited the “genealogical chromosome.” Those who have gone before us single out their cup bearers from their posts “on high” no doubt before we are born, and watching as we grow into our meager ken to see if we are worthy. They decide who shall be their mystery solvers, and their finishers of unfinished business. – And then they keep a few of those secrets to themselves – just to keep us guessing.

    I am so envious of the company you keep Alicia! My what a wonderful crowd of minds and hearts you all make by your yourselves and as a whole. I suppose my only solace is knowing that even the likes of Bob Anderson must have a brick wall or two also! ( Please know that I am just kidding in good humor…)

    I do so enjoy your thoughts and posts!

    Kind regards,

    J. Record

  10. Alicia, those days of “the group” were truly the best. Though only a listener at the time, all I learned during that time makes me an expert in Florida today. I will be doing genealogy as long as my wits allow.

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