Everyone has roots. Regardless of whether we embrace them—or even know about them—we come from people whose experiences, choices, and values shape our own. Here are some stories from members of the Brown Genealogy Club about their search for their own roots and the people who planted them.
Reach out to BGC co-founders Jake Garfinkle (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Tessa Devoe (email@example.com) if you'd like to get involved!
This morning, as I ate breakfast in the VDub, I looked through the genealogy group I joined on Facebook. A woman posted saying she had the names of her great-grandparents, yet couldn’t find anything about them. I pulled out my laptop, found the marriage record of her great-grandparents—and their parents—replied to her post, packed up my bag, and went to class.
I’ve been doing genealogical research for almost a decade, and moments like these have become commonplace: whether it’s finding three generations of a woman’s Hungarian family in fifteen minutes, solving century-old paternity cases, finding someone’s ancestral pre-immigration surname, identifying unknown sperm donor fathers, or reuniting long-lost half siblings. In my high school study hall, I found that my friend’s great-grandmother had been passing as Greek but was born Mexican, a fact unknown to her children and grandchildren. In between college classes and study sessions, I make cold calls to strangers telling them they have an adopted half-sister who’s looking to connect. While in Quiet Period, I spent hours consoling a daughter of Holocaust survivors after explaining her DNA meant her dad was not her biological father; a month later, I spent a weekend finding her biological father using only her DNA results, some third cousin matches, and a whole lot of records.
The absurdity of it is sometimes lost on me, but it really is strange. Genealogy gives the ability to see into people’s lives, bringing history alive—a descent from past into present. With technological advances making genealogical databases more accessible, this process has become quite easy to bring into everyday life. Hence the strangeness: Something about unlocking long-forgotten history while eating VDub pancakes seems incongruent, yet that’s how it ends up happening. Fanfare or not, genealogy will always be a part of my life, whenever, wherever.
“We were clever people. Clem had my picture in his wallet, my name in my handwriting saying ‘To Charles, with love, from Gene Anna Laird.’ We were eighteen years old. I was legal in Kansas, Clem was 18, but we knew he had to say he was 21. Somehow, it felt better just to lie halfway. We headed for Marysville, Kansas, popular for not-quite legal marriage.” This is the eye-catching intro to my great-grandmother George Anna’s essay, “To Tie the Knot',' the story of her adolescent elopement with my great grandfather Clement. When deciding what to write for this article, I immediately thought of this essay. It is the birth of a great love, a snapshot into life of years past. But as I sat down to type it out, something felt wrong. These stories are decades old and generations removed, yet it feels as if I am violating myself by retelling them. It got me thinking: What right do I have to share the stories of my ancestors? Or what obligation? Do our ancestors need to consent to us sharing their personal lives on the internet?
“To Tie the Knot” specifically is told in the first person, and tells of love. But what about my dad’s other grandparents? An Irish immigrant and a Maliseet Indian who grew to estrange their children through abuse, distrust, and alcoholism. Of course, this is a vast overgeneralization, and only reflects the point of view of the estranged child. Is it fair to villainize them based on my secondary experience, with no primary resource for my ancestors to defend themselves? All this goes to show that creating a family tree is both an incredibly personal and yet incredibly detached process. We are related to these stories through DNA and generational retellings, yet are distant from their desires and intentions.
While reading through my family’s genealogical records, I stumbled upon a massive lie my family had passed down for generations. Somehow, it had gone unnoticed, despite meticulous record-keeping, and I was now the sole keeper of the truth. The story that had been told was that my mom’s side of the family is descended from Stephen Hopkins, former governor of Rhode Island, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the first Chancellor of Brown University. As fun as all that sounds, it is incorrect. The records I found in my great-grandmother’s home clearly show that we descended from a quite distant cousin of Stephen Hopkins. The fun genealogical story that I had shared so many times during childhood as my “fun fact” was indeed false. I used to enjoy the fact that I attended the same school that this distant relative was heavily involved in. This was disappointingly ended by my new family tree. However, this same tree showed me something new: There is indeed a Stephen Hopkins we are descended from, just from a much earlier time. As early as the Mayflower, to be exact. Stephen Hopkins, the British merchant and pilgrim, is a common ancestor of Governor Stephen Hopkins and myself. He traveled to America in hopes of a new life and was committed to the well-being of the new colony. I used to imagine Governor Stephen Hopkins being pleased that his descendants had attended the very Brown University that he helped start. Now, I imagine that Stephen Hopkins of Plymouth Plantation would be proud to see his descendant still living in New England and attending an institution that has endured for 250 years since the inception of a country that he helped start.
I learned about genetics in tenth grade biology, but never took an extreme interest in genetics or genealogy until September 29, 2019. On this day, I logged into my 23andme portal and saw that I had a message. Little did I know that message would lead to the revelation of many deeply hidden family secrets, over fifty years in the making. For my mother’s whole life, she thought that she was an only child, always longing for a sibling. On that night in September over two years ago, I had a message from my mother’s long-lost brother, who had been adopted 52 years prior. My grandparents would have taken the secret of the child they gave up for adoption to the grave, had it not been for modern DNA technology. After several messages exchanged back and forth with my uncle, we learned that he and my mother had lived a block apart from one another for two years and attended the same college. My mom had likely walked by her sibling, crossing paths on the streets of Philadelphia, having no clue of their deeply hidden relation. As if this discovery had not been life-altering enough, the same thing happened seven weeks later, on November 17, 2019. I logged into my Ancestry.com portal to see a new message, but this time, from my mother’s long lost half-sister. Shortly later, these messages turned into a family reunion, where both of my mother’s "new" siblings met their biological father for the first time. The weekend I met my mother’s siblings and my cousins for the first time was shocking, celebratory, joyous, and simultaneously filled with grief.