Five years ago I searched the archives of a small county historical society for information on my great-grandfather, Samuel Allston (1859-1944). I had a special interest in him, as I had grown up on his homestead in north central Minnesota and from my grandmother had heard stories about his family’s migration from Ireland. As children, my cousins and I played in the little cabin on our farm that had been his last home.
A Treasure Chest!
Earlier searches had been unproductive, but in checking a spelling variant, Alston, I hit the jackpot. The archive contained a formal interview that my great-grandfather had given in 1939, when he was 80. The interview described his youth, the family’s disastrous migration to the United States, and his subsequent life story. The Allstons had settled in an upstate New York mill-town, where three of his siblings and his father died soon afterwards as the result of a typhus epidemic. Eleven-year old Samuel was reduced to child labor to provide for the remnants of the family. Always sickly, by the time he was a young man Allston was gravely ill with the “galloping consumption” and physicians recommended a new climate. It was 35 degrees below zero when he made the wintry trek to Minnesota. On the advice of his new doctor, a homeopath who believed in the restorative powers of resinous pine “airs,” Allston went to work in a remote logging camp. He had plenty of food, hard work and clean air, and by the spring he left the woods “completely cured.” This is where genealogy is fun. My great-grandfather was a Minnesota lumberjack: Cool!
The file also contained family photographs — ones that had been loaned to the historical society in 1939 and forgotten. “Do you recognize this person?” I asked my 95-year old grandmother when I returned from the archives, holding up a photograph of her mother. There were few photographs of my great-grandmother, and grandma hadn’t seen this photograph in nearly 60 years. Tears welled up in her cataract-clouded eyes as she said, “It looks like … my mother!” That is where genealogy is really fun.
We have a covenantal faith. God makes covenant with us and with our children (Gen. 17:7). We are called to honor mother and father (Ex. 20:12). For our edification, Scripture records the details of past generations, in both positive and negative ways. And Job 8:8-10 urges us to learn from our forbearers: “Please inquire of past generations, and consider the things searched out by our fathers. For we are only of yesterday and know nothing, because our days on earth are as a shadow. Will they not teach you and tell you, and bring forth words from their minds?”
Genealogy can be a powerful tool. It provides an excellent opportunity to teach and learn history. It provides excellent opportunities to learn research methods. (Genealogists constantly ask questions about accessibility, documentation and verification.) It provides excellent opportunities for homeschool projects — teaching about families and their histories. Most importantly, at least for those from Christian families, genealogical research provides opportunities to learn about the faith of our fathers. What follows, then, are practical ideas about how to initiate such research.
How to Begin
First, one can begin simply, by constructing a family tree. Make a list of parents, and grandparents, siblings and children, cousins, and grandchildren. (Quick question: what is your maternal grandmother’s maiden name? Most adults, I suspect, would recognize the name but wouldn’t be able to recall it. It is all too easy to forget the commonplace past.) Those who are ambitious can track down dates for marriages, births, and deaths. The family tree will introduce other questions. Grandma and grandpa, for instance, were alive during the Depression and World War II. What was life like for them? What do they remember about those years?
Second, budding genealogists can conduct oral interviews. Interview parents and grandparents. Start with questions about life’s milestones (conversion, marriage, children, vocation, church, etc). And be sure to ask qualitative or reflective questions. (What lessons have you learned? How has God guided you? What advice do you have for the next generation?)
Some old timers are fuzzy on details, but will become more lucid when talking about issues of importance to them. I once interviewed “Daddy Zeke,” a nonagenarian black patriarch in southwest Virginia. He didn’t recall much about the things on my list of questions concerning segregation and the civil rights movement. But he came alive when I asked questions about his family, his work, and his church (right next door, for which he donated the land). He recalled working overtime to pay off the house and with great passion described taking possession of “the deed.” Mr. Johnson had a wonderful Christian testimony and was an inspiration for his descendants who lived all about him, including his grandson who pastors the family church.
Third, genealogists should check on local resources. Public libraries usually have sections on local and genealogical history. If your family has lived in an area for any time, there should be some information. It can be exciting to use microfilm of the local newspaper, even if it is just to show a youngster his birth announcement or to show what was in the headlines on that date.
Rich Sources of Information
Sometimes libraries will have special collections useful to a researcher. In looking through microfilm of naturalization papers for my home county, for instance, I uncovered my German grandfather’s immigration paperwork. “I understand that Grandpa was neither a polygamist nor an anarchist,” I told Grandma upon my return home. When she gave me a puzzled look, I pulled out a photocopy of the document where he had sworn to those facts.
Fourth, census information can be helpful. The federal government first authorized a census in 1790, and one is conducted every ten years. They can be rich sources of information, not only listing the names of household members, but also their age, country of birth, literacy and occupation.
States also authorized censuses, and I found the 1905 Minnesota census interesting, particularly on the issue of origins. At the time, my great-grandfather’s household included himself (born in Ireland), his mother (born in Scotland), his wife (born in the U.S.), and my grandmother, who was the last child remaining at home. Researching the census shortly after Braveheart came out, I was delighted to have a Scottish ancestor. And it seemed a nice coincidence that I had lived with my grandmother, as she had with hers. “Tell me about your Scottish grandmother,” I said, “What was she like?” My grandmother, a kindly person who never said anything bad about anyone, paused for a long time. Finally she said, “You know, she had a hard life — what with losing those children and her husband after coming to America, and I don’t think she was quite right in the head.”
Correspondence and Pictures
Fifth, research might include family ephemera, like pictures and artifacts, or correspondence. A student once did research on her grandfather who was killed in Italy late in World War II. Missy had known little about him and that side of the family, but discovered a stack of correspondence that the grandfather had written to his parents. Homesick and desperate to return to his young sons and pregnant wife, the young soldier wrote heart-wrenching letters home, and everyone in our class had teary eyes as Missy read excerpts from the letters. At one point, Missy’s grandfather told his parents not to worry about him anymore, as he had got things “straight” with the Lord. He was killed in action shortly afterward. It was highly meaningful for Missy to find in the long-lost correspondence a record of her grandfather’s salvation.
Finally, researchers might try to find family genealogies. Often, other relatives have done the legwork in collecting family history, and you can build upon their labors. A friend of mine, for instance, was delighted to learn that he was a direct descendent of Rev. John Thompson, an 18th century Presbyterian minister and strong advocate of confessional integrity. Thompson also authored a catechism, which my friend passed along to his children. It was a powerful tool to show where their family had come from, to show them their ancestor’s commitment to the Lord and the church, and to challenge the next generation.
There are many things I don’t know about the life of Samuel Allston. I know that he had a tough time in the new country, and I gather that he was strict and parsimonious. Yet the interviewer described him as a “devout Presbyterian,” and my Baptist grandmother confirmed that: “he always catechized us, and he never missed family devotions.” It is encouraging to know that we are descended from those who loved the Lord and His Word, and by studying their histories we can be moved to greater faithfulness.