Since my dad died in 2010, I’ve been doing a fair amount of family history. He’d been hoarding a whole bunch of old family photos and memorabilia that I promised my brother I would put into an album. I’ve worked on that, but I’ve also branched out to research other lines of the family, thanks to the crack cocaine that is Ancestry.com.
I’ve learned some fascinating stuff, like that my great-great-grandmother Sarah Riess was once briefly and disastrously married to a Mormon. And remember that story about how the middle initial “S” in Ulysses S. Grant doesn’t mean anything and was attached to Grant’s name without his say-so? Well, the eejit responsible was . . . my very own Hamer ancestor! We are so proud.
But sometimes doing family history can be frustrating work, filled with dead ends and confusion. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of things we can do to make our descendants’ lives easier. And when you think about how complicated our lives are in the 21st century, how’s it going to be for them in the 24th? We ought to do whatever we can to help them simplify.
- Please don’t recycle the same stock names in every generation. We know you’re in love with tradition, and tradition is a good thing, but you don’t actually need four John Smiths who are first cousins. Mix it up a little. Get some new names into the gene pool, people. Give your kids weird names that will get them pummeled on the playground but will serve the family’s greater interest in the centuries to come. Gwyneth Paltrow’s really on to something here.
- But don’t apply Rule #1 to yourself when you are an immigrant. Yes, thousands of people changed their names when they came to America to seek a better life, or their names were changed for them by glassy-eyed clerks with clipboards. But there is a huge difference between a Johann Schmidt anglicizing himself quite logically into John Smith and that same guy becoming Jake Miller. Who knows why some people did this? Maybe they were fleeing the law. Maybe they were having a midlife crisis. But one thing is certain: Inexplicable name changes make genealogical research nigh unto impossible.
- Caption your photographs. Yes, you know who all those people are, but you’re not just scrapbooking for yourself. One way to make your descendants love you is to let them know exactly who’s who.
- Be born, live, and die in the same town. I’ve violated this rule about eight times myself, but really, is it too much to ask? When your descendants are scuttling around your town in search of clues about you, how amazingly helpful of you if all your records—and your tombstone!—are in one place. They can find your birth, marriage, and death certificates at the county courthouse, then pay their respects at your gravesite, and still have time to go out to lunch at the Jetson Cafe. Bonus points if your entire family is buried in a single cemetery, which is one-stop shopping for the genealogy enthusiast.
- Only one person from a family and one person from a neighboring family should marry in a single generation. There are many ways that marriage can complicate a family history: widowhood, divorce, remarriage. (And Lord help those people descended from polygamist ancestors—ack! At least Mormons kept meticulous records.) But to me the single most confusing marital complication is when brothers of one family marry sisters of another. Don’t do it, people. I know it sounds all adorable, but it will confound the heck out of your descendants.
The family tree image is used with permission of Shutterstock.com. The other photo is of my direct ancestor John Jacob Riess (1811-1855), an immigrant from Germany who co-founded Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis.