Thursday, April 25, 2013

Were Your Ancestors Boring?

I just read the book “Fancy Nancy: My Family History” to my daughter. Nancy needs to write a report on one of her ancestors, but when she learns that her great-grandfather's life wasn't exactly exciting she embellishes her story. She later realizes that she needs to be truthful and in the end she is happy presenting an unvarnished account of his life.

(Is this a boring ancestor? Possibly. Unlabeled photo in the author's collection.)

I suspect that some people start looking into their family history with the hope of discovering a cousin among the famous. That was never my goal. I simply wanted to know more about what I've come to think of as “my people.” That's fortunate because as far as I have determined I'm not related to anyone famous. One story in my family says that we are related to Samuel Clemens, via our Richard Clemens (~1796-1870), but so far, I have failed to find a connection. Another story says that our Bongey line left France to avoid losing their heads, but I have yet to trace them across the pond. I can say that my Goff/Goffe line goes back to New Hampshire (apparently, I still have some things to confirm) where four generations of Goffs served in the military from before the Revolution through the war of 1812. That was the best I could do for my brother who asked, “Was there anyone who wasn't just a poor dirt farmer?”

So, do I think my ancestors, who generally lived under the radar, were boring? No. Perhaps people who are looking for adventurers or celebrities might think so, but in my opinion anyone who thinks learning about their relatives' lives is boring either hasn't looked very hard or lacks imagination. If all you know about a particular person is when they were born, married or died, then yes, that is uninteresting. But if you add in things like having a parent die young, having several kids who died as children, having a military man in the family, moving frequently, etc. then you are starting to assemble the building blocks of a story. If you have any court records, divorce records or newspaper accounts then you are ready to start weaving the threads together. In the process of researching one person you will naturally run across other kin and might encounter someone a little more colorful, like when I stumbled across the bigamist in my tree.

While some people might consider most of my ancestors boring, I don't. I have found many interesting stories among my ordinary kin. It gives me hope that someday after I'm gone, someone might be interested in learning more about my white bread life.


  1. Sonja, I agree with you. I've found that the stories of my immigrant ancestors are surprisingly compelling and they are the real heroes of daily life, not famous but important to my family tree. Thanks for bringing up this discussion!

  2. Sonja, I found you by Googling Richard Clemens. He is also an ancestor of mine through Thomas and Mary Ann. Is there any way i can email you instead of going through here?

    1. Paula, if you are on Facebook you can find me there (my photo is the same as here) and message me there so I can give you my email privately (I'd like to avoid putting it out here on the web where it is available to spammers). If you're not on FB let me know and we'll come up with a plan B. Thanks!