As anyone reading this knows, I published a book last summer called The Journey Takers. It uses the story of my immigrant ancestors to tell the larger story of the Western European immigration experience. To tell their stories, I did research for ten years. I tracked down every record that mentioned my family, every town history of any place they ever lived, and stacks of first-hand accounts of events they experienced written by all kinds of other people, in addition to reading scholarly journals and books describing the political, historical, social etc. setting of their lives. I visited the Family History Library in Salt Lake City lots of times, ordered in dusty, forgotten manuscripts from libraries across the country to the University of Wisconsin library (we lived in Madison at the time), and even trekked to archives and local churches in Germany, Sweden, and England.
In other words, I was thorough. I knew everything there was to know about the family. Or so it seemed.
Then last week, I got a phone call. This is the kind of phone call every genealogist imagines getting one day. This phone call was from a long, lost cousin (third or fourth cousin, I think) who had (are you ready for this?) original letters written from my family in the 1800s in Germany. She’s not exactly sure what they are because they are in German and she can’t read them. Maybe they are letters the family wrote to each other while they still lived in Germany. Or maybe they are letters the family wrote and sent across the ocean.
What do they say? I don’t know yet! She’s meeting me at my lecture in Provo and I’ll get to lay eyes on them for the first time – and leave the lecture with them in my possession.
I did thousands of hours of research, but I had no idea about these letters. Surprising? It shouldn’t be.
When I was in college, one of my professors used to talk about the “one true branch of the family tree fallacy.” (Note: I went to Brigham Young University which is probably the only place where college students can take classes about family history and professors develop theories such as this.)
The fallacy goes something like this: (I seem to be big on fallacies lately. I’m not really sure why.) Great-Great-Grandma Mary did not leave behind a dairy. If she had left behind a diary, I would definitely know about it (added silently: and probably even have the diary itself in my possession).
What is being implied: Something as important as a diary would be known to my family because, after all, I belong to the ONE TRUE branch of the family tree.
Logically, this doesn’t make sense of course. We can use my family as an example. My immigrant ancestors, my great-great-great grandparents came from Germany in 1880. They had ten children, eight of whom married. My great-great-grandfather had thirteen children, nine of whom married. My great-grandfather had six children, five of whom married and four of whom had children (one had 12 children). My grandfather also had six children. I have dozens of first cousins. Think of how many second cousins I have – or third cousins. If my immigrant ancestor kept a diary and passed it on to his youngest daughter (I’m descended from the oldest son), it’s very possible that I would have never heard of it. After all, I have no idea who these people are. Even if they had disseminated the information about the diary to their several hundred closest family members, I STILL wouldn’t know. And what if the person who had it didn’t realize its value and kept it in a box in the basement? (We won’t even consider the ghastly possibility that someone tossed it out with the trash…)
So, what can we do? Well, we can expand our circle as much as possible. Let everyone in the family know that we are collecting information about the family. Post information online so that others can find us that way. Contact not only first cousins, but second and third cousins if possible.
Of course this distant relative of mine contacted me because of my book. If there had never been a book, I would still have no idea about these letters.
It makes me wonder what else might be floating around out there about my ancestors!