It’s been a couple days since we’ve gotten to blogging, but in that time our transcription service, Life Stories was published in WhatcomTalk.com (thank you!!) and had a chance to attend a family reunion for Grandpa’s 93rd birthday — what an age! But we were eager to get back and share with you another interview in our Genealogy in the Works Series. This week’s interview is with my good friend Patrick Barrett. I met Patrick years ago on an online discussion forum and we’ve been friends ever since. Read on to find out more about Patrick and why genealogy means so much to him.
1. As a gay man, how do you think your experience in genealogy differs from others?
I think the thing about being a gay genealogist is that, naturally, you wonder who was gay. Most of the time, you can’t really know. You can’t assume that the old spinsters and bachelors in your family were gay, not at all. People stay single for lots of reasons.
Up until within my lifetime, most gay people married people of the opposite sex, brought up children, and had their same-sex companions ‘on the side’ — if at all. Because of bigotry and anti-gay laws, they were usually very afraid of being found out, and they tried not to leave any clues.
They could be targets of violence, and they could be imprisoned. They could easily lose their jobs, their families, everything. Even in the 1990’s, I had a gay landlord who warned me never to mention anything about gay bars or gay people to his son. ‘I’d just die if my grandchildren found out I was gay.’
Sometimes there seem to be clues. Sometimes you think, ‘Well, he may not have been gay, but he seems to have known all the gay people in town.’ Or, ‘He really seems to have been unusually affectionate toward that one friend.’ But it’s mostly guesswork, and I don’t guess in writing, especially if the people involved have children or grandchildren still living.
Most people, even today, don’t want to hear that Mama was a lesbian, or that Grandpa was gay, and when you speculate without proof, I think you’re in danger of stirring up ill feelings that can be detrimental to both your family relationships and your research. I wouldn’t bring it up except with a relative I knew to be open to the subject, and even then, I’d be cautious.
It’s tragic to me that these people’s stories are lost because of the bigotry they faced. Not just the stories, either. Most of the time we don’t even know who they were. They survived by keeping their true selves secret, and now all they’re lost to us. We know about people like Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman, but most of the gay people of past are secret people, and we’ll never know about them.
2. What is your current field of study or passion in genealogy right now?
For the last ten years or so, I’ve grown very interested in houses and neighborhoods. Not just local history, but neighborhood history. It’s not genealogy, strictly speaking, but I think it helps flesh out our ancestors’ lives. I’m not just interested in names and dates; I want to know who my ancestors were, and what life was like for them. Neighborhood history is easier in cities, and until relatively recently most of our ancestors lived on farms, but either way, it’s interesting to me.
Families now are more insular than they used to be. For many families, all the adults work outside the home, and everybody goes everywhere by car, so you might not even know your neighbors, but it wasn’t that way until recently.
When I was a kid in the 1960’s, we knew everybody on our street and most of the people on nearby streets. Kids played and roamed unsupervised. We made our own social connections, without play dates and apart from organized activities, and our parents, too, socialized with the neighbors. Neighbors were much more significant in our lives than they usually are now.
So I ask questions like:
1. Who lived next door? Down the block?
2. When was this house built? What families lived there over the years?
3. What businesses operated in the neighborhood?
4. How far was it to church? Who was the priest or minister?
5. How far was it to the grocery? To the park?
Sometimes — quite often, in fact — you find that a neighbor down the street was an aunt or a cousin, but mostly it just helps you understand the setting in which your ancestors lived. It gives you a better sense of what their day-to-day lives may have been like. For me, that’s what it’s all about: Understanding who they were and what their lives were like. It’s all about stories.
3. When did you first get into genealogy and what spurred that?
When I was ten years old, we had to make a simple pedigree chart, back to great-grandparents, in school. I had to get my parents to help, and I learned that my maternal grandmother wasn’t just Edna, but Stella Edna. I learned that my paternal grandmother wasn’t just Hulda, but Hulda Hedwig Barbara. I learned new names and surnames I’d never heard before, and it all seemed intriguing.
My father’s mother took me to the newspaper office and showed me how to find obits on microfilms. (The local paper had been indexed, so it wasn’t just scrolling through microfilms for hours.) She also took me to the courthouse and showed me how to look up vital records, and she took me to the cemetery and showed me where her father and her grandparents were buried.
She had already done some research on my grandfather’s family. When my great-grandmother was dying, she placed her four youngest children in Catholic orphanages, and they were eventually discharged to three separate homes. Grandpa’s brother Ray was adopted by a couple named Stutz but later resumed the surname Barrett. When he died in 1966, my grandparents weren’t sure if his legal name was Barrett or Stutz. They never did find any evidence that he had legally changed it back, but it turned out not to be a problem. Along the way, Grandma found out a lot about Grandpa’s family.
So suddenly there was all this new information, all these things I had never known, and there were still lots of loose ends and mysteries. I felt I had to find out more. I still feel that way. I’ve been doing this for forty-six years, and I guess I’ll do it as long as I’m able.
4. Tell us a little quick story about your family history!
I like the stories about people who pushed the boundaries of propriety a little.
My great-great-grandfather, Maney Rominger, was the son and brother of Methodist preachers, but he was never baptized. When he was a little boy, they held a baptism at the river, and Maney was supposed to be baptized, but he ran and hid in the rushes instead. He never did get baptized. He died young, in his late thirties, and when he was on his deathbed his mother begged him to be baptized before he died. Maney refused, declaring, ‘I’m a close to heb’m as any ob ‘m.’
Maney’s wife, Margaret, had a sister called Josie. Josie was never married, but she had six children — which, as you can imagine, was pretty scandalous in the late nineteenth century. A neighbor once brought up Josie’s situation to my grandmother’s Aunt Martha, who was Josie’s niece. Aunt Martha replied, ‘I don’t agree with the way she’s a-livin’, but she’s my aunt, and I’ll stand by her.’ Josie died a few years before I was born, so I never knew her, but I’ve talked to relatives who knew her. One of my Mom’s cousins told me, ‘I admire Aunt Josie. Anybody can have one child out of wedlock, but when you have six, you just don’t care what anybody thinks.’
5. What advice would you give to genealogists?
Talk to your old people, and do it soon.
They know the stories, and when they’re gone you might not get another chance. Ask questions, too. If they say, ‘My cousin and I … ‘ ask them which cousin that was.Who were his parents? (At the same time, don’t get in the way of the stories. Let the narrative flow, and ask follow-up questions.)
Sometimes you might be surprised at what you don’t know. Sometimes people go through their whole lives never thinking to mention to their grandchildren that they had a brother who died young, or that before they met Grandpa, they had a fiance who died in the war.
When you get older, you say, ‘I wish I’d asked … ‘ But then it’s too late.
Also, don’t limit yourself to just your grandparents. Their siblings and their cousins have stories, too. Maybe your grandmother didn’t know her grandparents, but she had a cousin who knew them well.
Even younger people might have stories about your ancestors. Maybe your great-grandfather didn’t talk about his family, but he had a brother who did, and that brother’s grandchildren know stories that are lost to your branch of the family. Try to find those people.
You can only push it so far, of course. When your relatives are telling you that your ancestor from 250 years ago was the younger son of a duke, or that he was one of seven brothers who came to America after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie — well, those stories might be true and they might not.
If you take them too seriously, they can lead you down a lot of false trails and impede your research. But write them down, anyway. Even your family’s myths are part of your family history. Sometimes they even turn out to be true.
6. Why is genealogy important to you?
The stories are very important to me, of course. You also gain a much greater understanding of history when you see how it played out in the lives of your ancestors, and when you find that things were never as simple and clear-cut as what you learned in school.
Beyond that, genealogy teaches you, and then constantly reminds you, that we’re all connected. We really are all biologically related, and beyond that, we have all kinds of other connections. I’ve heard from a woman whose ancestors owned the factory where my great-grandmother worked. I’ve heard from people whose ancestors came over in the same ship, on the same voyage, with my ancestors. I’ve run into people whose ancestor was a close friend of my sixth-great-grandfather. My great-grandfather’s cousin was a nun, and I’ve corresponded with a nun who knew her.
All our lives mingle. There’s no clear line where your grandmother ends and your mother begins, or you do. They’re part of you. It’s more like gradual shading and blending. All our lives blend into other lives.
Once you get enough perspective, you see that humanity really is one big community and one big family and — in a way — one big organism. We’re all parts of one another.