Genealogy waits for no man (or woman) and it’s been a few weeks since I was able to get an interview for Genealogy In The Works out on the blog. But wait no longer, today’s interview is with Thomas MacEntee from Geneabloggers.
Thomas and I met when I posted my first Genealogy In The Works with Patrick Barrett — you can view it here. Through friends, I was introduced to him and other like-minded genealogy bloggers and quickly came into a deep appreciation for what he does. I’ve even done a few of his prompts with Tombstone Tuesday.
Without further ado, here is Thomas MacEntee, founder of GeneaBloggers.
1. Your website, GeneaBloggers is one of the most well-known in the social media community of genealogists. How did this start and what did you/do you hope to get from that?
In late 2008, I was able to step back and see the coming convergence of Facebook, Twitter, improved Internet access speeds and genealogy to realize there would be a need for a site such as GeneaBloggers. I know I wasn’t the only genealogy blogger and there was a small hardcore group of bloggers who were also passionate about family history. So I decided to organize these bloggers into an online community to promote the concept of blogging family history, to promote various blogs, and to provide resources to get people started on blogging.
2. How did you get started in genealogy?
My first taste was in 1977 when the mini-series Roots appeared on television. I watched the series with my great-grandparents, and after each episode, we’d discuss our family history. I was told there was a “book” about our genealogy that had been printed.
Sure enough, in the late 1980s, I received a copy of this “book” when my great-grandmother died – it was printed in 1916 and traced my mother’s Putman line back to 1645 in New York.
I really didn’t pick up the genealogy bug until the mid-1990s when Family Tree Maker software gained in popularity as did Ancestry.com
3. What is your current area of study or passion?
As a business owner of a small genealogy company, I’m trying to figure out how to communicate and create a sense of “urgency” to current and future family historians. Historically, genealogy has been something that older people pursue when they retire. We need to preserve family stories and artifacts NOW, not later and get all generational levels of the family passionate about family history.
4. Tell us a quick story about our family!
My family can be traced to Rhode Island (Robert Austin of Charlestown, b. 1628), New York (David Putman, arrived Schenectady 1645) and New York (Hugo Freer, founder of New Paltz, NY, arrived abt. 1675). I’m sure there are scandals like any family but I haven’t found too many of them so far!
5. What advice would you give to genealogists?
Go slow – this is not a race.
Be accurate – you want to leave a solid legacy, not sloppy work.
Cite your sources – know how you found information.
Connect with others and share – you are a steward for your family history
6. Why is genealogy important to you?
Genealogy helps understand certain familial traits and behaviors and it also helps me put my family in the context of history overall.
7. What is your favorite thing about genealogy?
I love problem-solving and cracking open mysteries about my families.
Today’s interview happens to be with a long-time high school friend, Kirsten (Graff) Beyer. Kirsten and I became friends when I moved friendless to a new state, a new school, and a new life at the beginning of my 9th-grade year. Kirsten was always kind to me and even though our interests and passions have changed over the years, Kirsten and I remain friends with a common issue. Read on to find out more.
1. How did you get interested in genealogy?
As a child, I was always fascinated by history and antiques. My love for genealogy though came specifically at age 10. I remember sitting out on the front porch with my mother one evening, talking and reminiscing about family memories we had. She shared stories of her father (who passed away when I was just a year old), and her grandparents. I remember feeling intrigued and wanting to learn more.
Sensing my excitement, she asked me to wait while she went into the house. A few moments later she returned with a box full of files, papers, photos, and books. She shared that before her father passed away, he gave her all of the genealogy information he had, and asked her if she would keep it and continue the work for him.
As we searched through the box, we came across an old, worn book that appeared to be a ledger of sorts. She explained that it was the journal of my great-great-grandfather! I was utterly mesmerized as she slowly thumbed through the pages full of letters and photos and handwritten passages. I loved the feel of the book in my hands and the smell of the old paper. From that night on, I was hooked! I was determined to learn as much of my family history as I could, and I have loved it ever since!
2. Do you think your experience as someone who cannot have biological children colors your interest in genealogy?
I’ve always been a very traditional person by nature. Very much “by the book” and believing that there is a natural order to things. My 8+ year struggle with infertility has been deeply painful and has colored every aspect of my life. I think it that very traditional part of me though that mourns the deepest. Feeling like I have thrown off the natural order of things, or “broken the family chain”. That desire to “keep things going” is hard to reconcile when you are just not able to do so. The empty family chart under your name can be a stark reminder of what you’re missing.
Despite not having any children of my own though, I feel especially driven to work the family history for my nieces and nephews. As the oldest of 5 children, I was the only one to take a strong interest in genealogy growing up. Many stories and experiences have been passed on to me, and I know that should something happen to me before I preserved them, they would be lost completely. I also had the beautiful privilege of traveling to Germany to meet my great-grandmother several years before she passed away. I was the only one of my cousins ever able to meet this amazing woman in person; to sit at her feet and hear her stories in her own voice.
The only one who knew what her hands felt like, and what her laugh sounded like, and what she smelled like when you hugged her. I’m the only one of my siblings that has seen the village my mother was born in and heard the stories from those relatives there that are no longer with us. Genealogy is important to me because I feel an obligation to share those things! To share my memories and my knowledge and my experiences with my family members, particularly the children. Knowledge and insight into your past can be a powerful tool. I feel that obligation to my nieces and nephews to preserve those stories.
There’s great power that can come from knowing who you are and where you come from, and the lessons that can be learned. Whether I ever have children or not, I still feel like these stories are worth sharing. Stories of faith and fortitude; of strength and resilience; of love and beauty; of courage during dark times—I suppose, in some ways, that’ll be a type of legacy I’m able to leave behind. The gift of their stories. The gift of my family history.
3.What is your current study or area of passion?
I am passionate about my family, particularly my sweetheart husband Sean and my little nieces and nephews! They are the sunshine in my life. I also love being Mama to my fur babies. We have a 7 yr. old cat named Paw, a 6 yr. old corgi named Moe, and a 7-month-old bunny named Kaylee. I’m passionate about traveling and love studying history, cultures, and languages from around the world. I’m passionate about reading and my husband would attest to the fact that I own more books than I have space for! I also love spending time with friends, cooking/baking, philately, crafting, writing, party planning, kayaking in the summertime, and of course, genealogy!
4. Tell us a quick little story about your family history!
Growing up, we regularly heard the dramatic tale of my grandparent’s marriage. My grandmother Christel was the oldest of 7 children and the only daughter. Her family lived in a small village in southwestern Germany. She met grandpa Richard while he was serving in the military and stationed near her village. They courted and fell in love. When they went to her home and announced their engagement, her mother became furious! Here was her only daughter, announcing her intent to marry to a recently divorced man that was an American soldier and who was not Roman Catholic. Talk about scandalous! It’s said that great grandma was so outraged at the news that she broke a china plate over her head! She told her daughter that if she married that man she would be cut off from the family. Christel loved Richard though and was determined to see the wedding through. It wasn’t long before they were married, and soon after she became pregnant with my mother.
Fast forward 42 years–my mother and I were in Germany touring that small village. Grandmas brother Georg took us to the house that she and Grandpa lived in after their marriage, and the people that owned it kindly gave us a tour. Georg verified to us the validity of the story, and how upset and heartbroken great-grandma had truly been. He said though that the morning of the wedding, she had a slight softening of the heart, and allowed young Georg to go alone and be there at the wedding. Even though it makes me sad that Grandma had to suffer without the full support of her family, I’m happy that she had one sweet, familiar face from home to share in the joy of her special day.
5. What advice would you give to genealogists?
First — Write things down!
If something important is happening in your life or in your family, take the time to record it. Stories, special occasions, photos, meaningful conversations with loved ones. I first learned this lesson at age 14. My beautiful grandmother Mary was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and had been slowly losing her memory over several years time.
One weekend shortly before she passed away, she came to stay with my family and we enjoyed having her company. I took the opportunity to take her for a walk around our neighborhood one afternoon.We walked quietly for a while, and then suddenly she began to speak. She shared memories from her childhood and the small town she grew up in. She verified her birthplace, offered thoughts about her family members, gave me pertinent advice, and shared beautiful memories of when she and my grandfather were dating and he would take her dancing. She spoke clearly and surely, and I was both amazed and shocked, partly because I had never heard these memories and facts before, and partly because Alzheimer’s had stolen most of her ability to carry on a conversation in this way.
It was if she was given a few moments of clarity to share what was on her mind, and it was an amazing thing to witness. I was aware something special was happening, so I made it a point to pay close attention and write it down as soon as I got home. I’m so grateful I did! I always admonish people to take the time to write things down. Don’t wait until it’s muddled and fading or lost. Record it as soon as possible!
Second–Always double check!
Whether you’re verifying records, or desperately searching for a name, or sorting through belongings of a deceased loved one, always double check! I remember after my grandfather passed away in 2007, I was helping grandma clear old boxes and trash out of his room. Before I left, she handed me a small box of old 4th of July lights to drop in the dumpster on my way out. I got outside, opened the garbage lid, but before I dropped it I decided I would just double check. I opened the lid and was shocked to find an assortment of amazing treasures I’d never seen before! There was an old journal from 1935, a couple of small naval ledgers, a pocket knife, receipts, some jewelry and pins, a dog tag, and much more. For some reason, Grandpa had chosen to stash these old keepsakes away in this light box, and had I not taken the split second to open that box and double check, those treasures would have been lost to us forever.
Third–Pass your love of genealogy along!
For me, there’s something beautiful and exciting in sharing the joy of genealogy with someone, especially a child. To watch the spark in their eyes as they discover new and amazing things about who they are and where they come from. I had an awesome experience just last year of sharing the joy of genealogy with a young lady in my church.
While sorting through some family records online, we discovered a small, private family cemetery on the east coast where some of her direct ancestors were buried. It was hidden away, had been largely forgotten, and when asked, her family had no knowledge of it. We reached out online to a genealogist in that area, and she verified that the cemetery was indeed there, and she was gracious enough to take photos of the tombstones so that we could verify names and dates and make the connections. To say my young friend was excited is an understatement! She fell in love with genealogy that night, and I felt privileged to be able to share that joy with her.
6. Why is genealogy important to you?
As I mentioned before, it’s important to me to pass it along. It’s important to me that my nieces and nephews know where they’re from and who they come from. Connection to your past offers an incredible sense of self-worth. It’s an awareness that you are part of something greater. That is a never-ending sea of names and dates and faces, you are unique and rare and precious. That realization is a beautiful gift.
Also, as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I believe that the relationships we have with our family members are eternal and that we are all brothers and sisters connected in one long family chain. Genealogy is about building bridges, making connections, and reaching out in love to those that have come before you, and those that are following behind you. I suppose, in its essence, it is both a labor and a legacy of love.
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.