Friday, January 25, 2013

A New Year’s Resolution: To Find Out Who I Am!

Guest Post by Robin Bayley, author of The Mango Orchard

Come the beginning of a New Year, we often assess our lives and make a commitment. We promise ourselves we’ll quit smoking, get a new job, give up chocolate, take up sword swallowing, learn Russian, or spend more time with the family.

This year several people have told me that they intend to spend more time with their family, but not necessarily in the sense that they intend to head home from the office half an hour earlier or attend their son’s soccer practice. They were talking about family history.

People embarking on a genealogical investigation are usually struck with two emotions. Firstly, there’s the heady excitement of undertaking a voyage of discovery into who we are, where we come from. There’s the thrill of the unknown: maybe there’s royalty in the family; perhaps an ancestor discovered a cure to a tropical disease, wrote a world-famous opera, or murdered his entire village and ran away to Papua New Guinea where he was mistaken by a local tribe for a hearty lunch. You never know … until you find out!

Secondly, there’s the panic about where on earth to start. As someone whose family search led him to giving up his job, selling his home and eventually discovering a secret family in a small village in western Mexico that his English great-grandfather had left when he escaped the Mexican Revolution -- a revolution he helped to start -- let me share a little of what I learned on my journey.

1. Family Stories
Early in my search I received a crucial piece of advice: ask questions now. Before people who know the answers die. As well as interviewing my grandmother, whose stories inspired the journey in the first place, I also met her few remaining relatives, whose input was invaluable. You may well find that some stories are inaccurate, contradictory and -- as all the best stories are -- grossly embellished. But these stories, no matter how exaggerated, are what form the fabric of family life. It’s not just the story, but who’s told it, how and why.

A small portion of the family that Robin unearthed in Mexico.
Another lucky break was to be given an inspired present when I left my job to write the book: a digital voice recorder. I discovered the true value of this tool in Mexico, where I was joined on a few interviews by my cousin, Javi. Several times, we remembered an interview completely differently, and when we listened back to the recording, we discovered we were both wrong. Nowadays many mobile phones can record to almost broadcast standard. Digital films are made just as easily. Make sure you download these recordings somewhere safe!

2. Coming to America
Because America was founded by people emigrating from the Old World, North Americans have a great advantage over us Europeans. For a start, almost every American and Canadian will have an ancestor who arrived in the country by boat, and the records are easily accessible.

Ellis Island, which is where the vast majority of migrants entered the States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is a genealogist’s delight. The old immigration building is now an impressive museum. There’s also a library tucked away on the top floor. Nearly all the manifests for the ships that arrived in New York are now available on their website: www.ellisisland.org/.

There were, however, over 90 other ports of entry, including Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New Orleans in the US, and Halifax and St. John in Canada. The US National Archive has a pretty much complete record of all passenger lists from all US ports since 1820. There was an excellent article on this subject in Family Tree Magazine in November.

Robin listens to some of his grandmother's family stories.
Typically, you can find out what class your ancestor travelled in (an indication of what their economic circumstances were), how long the journey took them, who they were travelling with, whether they were married, the colour of their eyes, their height and how many suitcases they had with them. Also, if they were allowed in, you can assume they passed the medical examination and arcane mental test, proving themselves to not be “an imbecile,” a “feeble-minded person” or carrying a “loathsome disease.”

You can also check the shipping manifests at the port of embarkation. Departures from the UK can be found at the National Archives Office in Kew, South West London, or on-line.

3. Marriage, Births and Deaths
This is the meat and drink area to most genealogists. These things are registered in church and state records, so you have two bites of the cherry. You used to have to go to local government or diocesan records office, but now a great deal is on-line. See the links at the end of this article.

4. A Life Lived
The most important thing is to remember that your ancestors lived a life. If you know what work they did (especially if they worked in the military or the government), or interested them, you may well find that employers, clubs, charities or societies keep archives. I found some priceless information about my great-grandfather in a work-related archive in Spain.

I hope that you enjoy the extra time you spend with your family! Above all, I hope you enjoy the journey!

To find out more about Robin’s extraordinary genealogical discoveries, and the book he wrote about his adventures, check out his website: www.themangoorchard.com.

Useful Genealogical websites
www.ancestry.com
www.cyndislist.com
www.rootsweb.ancestry.com

About the Author:
Robin Bayley had a successful career in children’s television, when one morning, much to the surprise of his friends, he decided to leave his job and sell his flat to travel and follow his muse. As well as uncovering the story told in The Mango Orchard, he has written many articles and is currently working on the screenplay for a feature film he has been commissioned to write, as well as researching for his next book.

Robin’s proudest boast was that he once had the role of a drug smuggler written for him in a Bollywood feature film.

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