Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My Amazing Phone Call

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!


  1. I think my Forrest Gump Principle of genealogy applies here: "Genealogy research is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you're going to find."

    Why does this always happen after you've written the article or book? Simply because you reached a wider audience than before. That's the power of publishing whether on paper or online.

    It seems to me that every piece of information we have is only a snapshot at a point in time. You can have 10, 100 ior thousands pieces, but we cannot capture every facet of their lives. I'm just happy to have the snapshots!

    Enjoy the letters - Randy

  2. Great news! And if I never get to writing that book, at least I have many bulletin board posts and more recent blog posts to attract cousins from the electronic world.
    I come from a family of 2 children, with only 6 first cousins and I am always thrilled to hear from some "removed" ones.

  3. Hurray! That is fabulously exciting. I'm so happy for you.
    Please share details with your faithful readers here!

  4. Long ago, when I was a "baby genealogist" I attended a lecture of a man who was a publisher. He had two pieces of advice that I remember. One was his definition of publishing (taking two sheets of paper, stapling them together and handing them to someone). The other was to always count on a second edition of the family history as being the more correct. He said as soon as you disseminate the first edition, those "cousins by the dozens" will come out of hiding and want to be included. Or they will come up with the family picture of the woman born in 1823 (happened to me), or they will come up with early German letters.

    What a treasure!

  5. Wow, that is wonderful!
    I've been compiling my own family's information and I think it has become inevitable that I follow your lead and write my family story as well.

    Just this week I was contacted by a 2nd cousin in the Czech Republic who found my tree online. I'm hoping we can swap information and both get some surprises nearly as promising as your letters!

  6. Writing about and publishing your findings is as integral a part of genealogy as the research. It is the only way to reach out to family members you do not know.

  7. Thanks for your comments. It was fun to hear some other similar stories!