A Dad Reflects on the Research Process

So at this point in our adventure we know that my wife’s ancestor Robert Morrison got a degree and a doctorate from the University of Edinburgh (so now we can refer to him as Dr. Robert Morrison). We also know that he was born in St. Thomas, USVI, which stands for United States Virgin Islands.

The “United States” portion of the name is very important as we will see.

So I wanted to go there and see if I could learn any more about Robert, his life, and/or his death.

But I couldn’t do that right away since we had just come back from vacation. So I thought I would do some research in the meantime on both the Morrison name in the Caribbean and on vacationing in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Also, I thought it would be interesting to document what I had learned so far and show it to my wife’s family.

Now, I may have been remiss in these posts not to reinforce the fact that this is my wife’s family. While I was at the university looking at musty old books, my wife was on vacation, just shopping and doing tourist stuff. (But mostly shopping.)

This didn’t bother me much until I presented what I knew to her and her family at a family gathering. The response was polite interest, but in some individual reactions the adjectives “feeble” and “tepid” could be substituted for the word polite.

So now I began to wonder, why I was so interested? What does it matter whether Robert Morrison was born in the Virgin Islands or Timbuktu? Did he do something worthy of having a bust made of him? Who cares?

This reaction was reinforced when I explained to the group that I had discovered Robert Morrison’s birthplace. One person, looking at me incredulously, said, “You’re not thinking of going there, are you?”

Of course I was going there. The only reason I wasn’t already there was that plans had to be made. Otherwise, I would have already been in the library in downtown Charlotte Amalie at that very moment instead of explaining my motivations over cheese puffs at a nephew’s birthday party.

I thought about this a lot. Even to the point of wondering if what I was doing had become a kind of unhealthy obsession. Anytime you are in the situation where you see something beautiful and say to others, “Isn’t that beautiful?”, and the response is neutral or worse, you start to rethink your reaction. Then when it occurs several times over, you start to question whether you really know when something is beautiful.

That’s where I was emotionally, and it caused me to do a great deal of soul searching.

Where I came out after all this introspection is this:

There are several factors, or elements, which reinforce each other and make the genealogical search not only attractive but compelling.

A SENSE OF COMPLETION

One is the mystery element. You start with a mystery, or sometimes a half truth, and the search is to find out which part, if any, is true and which part is just muddled family lore distorted by many retellings along the way. To me it is very satisfying to have a mystery explained, like a magic trick that is so impressive that you think there is some force that you don’t understand, yet once you find out the trick it is simplified and becomes sensible so that in the end you think, “Of course, why didn’t I think of that?”

I remember when I was young, my parents would talk about the Russian Romanov dynasty and whether Anastasia had escaped or not. In the fifties there were a number of people who came forward and said they were in fact the grand duchess, Anastasia. Many of these potential claimants were easily dismissed, but one claimant persisted and books were written about her and they made a movie with Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman about it. My parents were unsure of the truth of this mystery, but they didn’t dismiss it as a hoax either.

This mystery was solved relatively recently. Anna Anderson, who had claimed to be Anastasia, was in fact Polish, it turns out, and the real Anastasia unfortunately suffered the same fate as her brothers and sisters back in 1918.

It is a sad story, but I felt a sense of completion when the mystery had been solved. So that’s one element.

ALL IN THE FAMILY

Another element is the family stories I heard when I was growing up. Now I was one of seven children, and we had what I would call an active family compared to some of our neighbors.

Our neighbor on one side of the house had two children and the other side of the house was a middle-aged woman and her daughter who lived by themselves. I think the daughter was mentally handicapped, and they rarely made an appearance in the neighborhood.

Now our house was in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It was a three bedroom twin with one bath, so if even half the family was in the house, you were not alone. It was one of those straight-through houses which you would walk in the front door, through the living room, then the dining room, then the kitchen, and then out the back door. (These were very popular back in the day.)

My parents used to talk about this kind of house when they lived in Philadelphia, before they moved to the suburbs, where they had a neighbor, one street over, who for some reason couldn’t park on his own street so he parked on my parents’ street. At night after work, he would enter my parents’ house without knocking, walk all the way through and out the back, across both yards to his own back door. If anyone saw him he would nod. If my parents were having guests then he would nod to them as well.

We would visit our paternal grandparents for Sunday dinner many times, and it was always a treat. Their house was laid out differently. You entered the front door to a hallway and on the right was the dining room and on the left was the living room.

You could get to the kitchen from either of these rooms. That meant you could go from the front door to the living room, to the kitchen, to the dining room, and then back to the front hall and door without turning around, or even stopping. This was important because if you were chasing someone, or someone was chasing you, you didn’t want to have to stop.

Anyway, when we visited my grandparents, the adults would inevitably start talking about the relatives. I will attempt to recreate a small portion of one of the conversations as I remember them:

“You remember Sally”.

“Oh boy do I remember Sally”.

“Was she a DOWDY or a DOUGHTY?”.

“I think a DOUGHTY…no, maybe a DOWDY”.

“And Arnold”.

“Oh yes, Arnold”.

“He was definitely a DOUGHTY”.

“He certainly wasn’t a PLUM. You could tell that”.

(HUGE ROUND OF LAUGHTER).

Now this is not two people talking. This is several adults, eating and drinking, many of them talking at once and laughing, and throwing out names of people I didn’t know and never would know in person. Only fifty years later when I was doing research on my family would I come across these names and realize exactly how they connected into the family.

In fact it wasn’t until many years later that I found out that Dowdy and Doughty were not different last names but the same family name with different pronunciations. You can just imagine the confusion this would have caused to a small boy who was chasing the cat through the house.

So, I took a long time to get there, but this is the second element. Family research enables me to explain mysteries of my own family that I guess bothered me, at least subconsciously, since I still remembered these earlier conversations and my lack of understanding.

TRAVELING THROUGH SPACE-TIME

A third element is the history associated with individuals from different eras. I have touched on this before, the upside-downess aspect of learning history via an individual vs from the top-down, event-based structure of learning history. For me, I get caught up imagining what it would have been like to be in Old Philadelphia during the Irish riots or at Fredericksburg during the Civil War or being sixteen years old and living about four blocks from the hotel where Teddy Roosevelt was staying and his Rough Riders were drilling nearby getting ready to debark for Cuba. All of these are real examples I have come across in my research. Starting with an individual captures the moment for me unlike any other method.

Another element that appeals to me is the fact that you can meet relatives in your searching that otherwise you would never know. I have met and corresponded with quite a few cousins in the last dozen years and while most of these interactions are just pleasant catching up conversations, some are earthshaking surprises. (As you will see.)

The fifth element has a spirituality to it and may be the most difficult to describe.

How did I get here? Or better yet, How did I get HERE – at this very spot where I am writing about the factor labeled, “How did I get here?”.

Now, growing up in Catholic school we were taught that God made us in his image. So if you just accept that then maybe you don’t need any more. God put us here and that’s why we are here, and not over there somewhere.

But if you don’t completely accept that, then what?

Genealogical research is an attempt, albeit a poor one, to answer this question. I say “a poor one” because records of individuals don’t go back all that far. During one of my researching excursions, I remember finding out that people’s last names are a relatively new idea. In the old days, say from 1400 AD and going back you were John of Crete or Eric the Red, not John Smith or Eric Petersen.

So the genealogical record is extremely limited from a metaphysical sense, and the only hope is that by uncovering what is possible, that somehow you may extrapolate or hypothesize the remainder of the story.

Now I know my own history starting from about seventy years ago when I was born. I am very familiar with the events from that point on. But how did my parents end up together in Philadelphia? How did their parents end up together, and so on?

Once I started researching my family, many of these questions came to be answered, if not definitively, then with very good probability. With enough for me to say, “Oh, that’s how it happened,” at any rate. Of course many of them remain mysteries as well, but I like mysteries and I use them to keep various search paths alive.

And it is not without irony.

In the case of my wife’s great grandfather, Robert Milner Morrison, he was a Doctor (of something) and he taught at the University of Edinburgh. On the other hand, my great grandfather couldn’t read or write and played some type of musical instrument, owned several bars, and took care of horses.

So there you have it.

These are my reasons, at least the ones I am aware of, for pursuing genealogical research with such a passion. All of these elements combine for a perfect storm of interest for me.

Now I have met enough people who have little or no interest in this topic to no longer be surprised. But I must say early on, I was very surprised. I remember one exchange where I was avidly and excitedly explaining some things I had found about people who lived a hundred years ago or more, when the man I was speaking to asked me what my wife thought about this whole thing.

I responded that she was somewhat interested, but on the whole she would rather I go cut the grass than spend the time on the computer.

His response was, “I agree. At least the grass is still alive”.

Well, we didn’t make it to St. Thomas because of my son’s pestering questions about why I do all of this genealogy business.

Next stop is St Thomas, USVI, guaranteed.