Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Dangers of Genealogy

Full disclosure:  when I discovered Ancestry.com last year, I literally did nothing else for the span of a month.  I had all kinds of fun tracing some of my mom's ancestors back to the 1630s in Massachusetts and Connecticut.  I've been getting back into it slowly this summer, wary of letting it suck away every living moment.

But tonight, I learned a good lesson that's also applicable to writing.  Here's what happened:

I traced a line back from my mom to the Gridley/Humphrey family in Connecticut in the 1600s. An immigrant from England, Michael Humphrey (1620-1695) married Priscilla Grant (sister to Ulysses S. Grant's ancestor, Samuel Grant).  Most of the other online family trees listed Priscilla's parents as Matthew Grant (1601-1681) and Priscilla Grey (1601-1644).

Hmm, I thought.  An English family named Grey.  Well, that's promising.  Even if it didn't end up being the Earl Grey tea guy, maybe they'd be related to Lady Jane or Elizabeth Woodville's kids from her first marriage.  Following the Greys backward, I found a cavalcade of names any Anglophile would drool over: Percys, de Hollands, even a Beaufort...and for you genealogy enthusiasts, you know Beaufort is the holy grail for linking oneself to the Plantaganets.

Of course, I started drooling.

But then a funny thing happened.  I came across several sources debunking the "Grey" myth for Priscilla Grant's origins, lamenting the fact that this mistake has made it into so many trees and published histories of the Grant family.

It bummed me out.  My visions of tiaras and castles crumbled like an overbaked snickerdoodle.  The diligent authors, of course, proved their point entirely:  Matthew Grant clearly stated his first wife's birth and death dates as 1601 and 1644.  The real Priscilla Grey, daughter of an earl, lived in England her whole life, never emigrated, was born in 1615, and has a monument in England that mentions her husband, John St. Nicholas--clearly not a dude named Matthew Grant. She is clearly not the Priscilla who helped Matthew hack out the wilderness of Connecticut.  So there went my dreams of a direct link to John of Gaunt.

Damn it all.

But then I realized something else.  Two things, actually.  First, it's still pretty freaking cool to be distantly related to Ulysses S. Grant.  Second, much like writing, genealogy should never be attempted with the end result already determined.  You have to give yourself breathing room and the space to discover what lies ahead.  You might think you're going to end up one place, but a magical breath of inspiration may want to redirect your footsteps.

Let it.  Let go of what you want and give yourself over to where the universe (and proper research) take you.

After all...who needs John of Gaunt when you have Ulysses S. Grant?