By Barbara Falconer Newhall
Yes, you can locate your long-gone ancestors. You can pin them down to an exact place. Locating ancestors is not quite as easy as googling your high school boyfriend. But it’s fun, and only a tiny bit more challenging than the Tuesday New York Times crossword puzzle.
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been digitally trailing some of my long-lost dead ancestors as they migrated from New York state to the pioneering shores of Lake Michigan. Their odyssey began at Racine, Wisconsin, in 1845, moved on to Michillimackinac in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and settled finally in the upper reaches of the Mississippi in a town called Red Wing. From there, their descendants moved on to places like Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit and, in my case, California.
A Parking Lot in Minnesota
Last month I took a trip to Minneapolis to visit the 1600 block of its Seventh Avenue South. My research had revealed that my great-great grandfather, a postal clerk, was
living there with his family in 1880. Sad to say, my ancestors’ house was long gone, replaced by a high rise apartment building and a parking lot. Not far away, just across the Metro Blue Line light rail tracks, was an establishment identifying itself mysteriously as The House of Balls and generally not open for business until midnight.
It used to be you had to traipse around the country to track down your long-lost dead ancestors and their earthly locations. You had to travel to cemeteries, county courthouses, and your fourth cousin’s attic. You had conversations with Mormons, who would patiently guide you through their church’s extensive genealogy archives.
Meet Your Long-Lost Dead Ancestors Without Ever Leaving Home
Today you can do your search at home in your slippers and sweats in just a couple of days. Just go to Ancestry.com (for a couple hundred bucks a year) and FamilySearch.org (free, compliments of the Mormons, who put in a lot of time researching their ancestries with the goal of baptizing their own dead relatives in a temple ceremony).
I went on line on a Friday morning and was stunned to realize how quickly I could locate four generations of ancestors by name and residence. By Saturday noon I had identified the birth dates and locations of my mother’s mothers all the way back to my Dutch great-great-great-grandmother.
The last time I tried researching my ancestors, it had been my paternal line. This was before digitized public records became available, and before everybody had a laptop and easy access to the Internet. Back then — it was in the 1980s — I spent a couple
of afternoons at the Church of Latter-day Saints family history center in Oakland, California, tracing my father’s prohibitionist/feminist/abolitionist grandmother back to upper New York state. When I found one of her relatives in the poor house, I did the prudent thing: I gave up genealogy and took up rock gardening.
There’s more about that Dutch great-great-great grandmother to be learned. For years, family lore has had it that she was “half Indian.” Which had long led me to conclude that she was part of the Prairie Island Indian Community near Red Wing. But if she was born in Holland, as census after census made clear, then she was definitely not a Native American. Too bad for my childhood passion — shared by my cousin Jeanie — for traipsing barefoot through the Michigan woodlands, chewing sassafras leaves and pretending I was a for-real Indian.
But what about that “half Indian” family myth? If my three times great-grandmother wasn’t really a Native American Indian, then what kind of “Indian” was she? Hunches cheerfully entertained.
More about those northern woodlands at “Eagle Top — A Wild Place Tamed.” Also at “Wrestling with God on the Shores of Lake Michigan.”