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New Roots

The Gene Pull

The curious joys and odd surprises of tracing your family tree.

We were all grownups this time. At the genealogy library in Alexandria, Louisiana—housed in the town's old Carnegie library building—there were nothing but adults, along with several thousand microfilms and reference books. After a few days there I started to recognize a solid core of regulars, middle-aged men and women who seemed to spend every long lunch hour at the place, tracking down some great-great-grand-stepsomebody or other. I introduced myself to them; they, in turn, introduced me to some of the more byzantine corners of the lifestyle (genealogy, you see, is often too consuming a passion to be labeled a mere hobby), most of them linked somehow to the census, the old decennial government ritual that often seems rather dull to the uninitiated but which is absolutely indispensable to any American genealogical quest. There is, for starters, the Soundex, an unusual index that assigns numerical values to combinations of consonants; originally a Works Progress Administration make-work project, the Soundex has proven invaluable to legions of researchers by grouping together surnames that sound similar but are spelled differently—Rubin, Reuben, Ruben, Ruban, Rubinstein, Rabinowitz, and so on—and thus compensating for variables like the evolution of names, as well as census takers who sometimes had a casual relationship with spelling and good penmanship. ("What you have to remember," one Alexandria regular told me, "is that a lot of times the people providing the information couldn't read or write at all, and the folks taking it down weren't much better.") Furthermore, each census has its own quirky subcategories: the 1880 form, for example, contains a column to indicate whether or not the person responding to the survey was insane (a check mark in that column always makes reading the rest of the survey a more intriguing venture), while the 1930 census indicates whether or not the household in question contained a radio set. And then there is the great tragedy of the 1890 census, which burned in a fire in the basement of the Commerce Building in Washington, D.C., where it was being stored. If you want to make a genealogist sigh ruefully, just say "1890." You might even want to have a handkerchief handy.

Each find helped teach me that I am who I am because they were who they were.

Most significant, I learned that the peculiar feeling I experienced upon spotting a familiar name in the rolls was not unique. It was, however, quite addictive. Moreover, it seemed to intensify with every new discovery—especially once I made the transition to tracing my own ancestors.

It was only natural, I suppose. After all, I had done all this legwork, acquired all these new research skills; it was becoming increasingly difficult to justify not applying them to my own family tree. One day, while I had the 1900 census handy, I thought I'd try—just for fun, naturally—to see if I could find anyone in there from whom I was actually descended. And that's when the trouble really began.

If you're going to be serious about the pursuit, at some point you're probably going to feel obligated to visit the mecca of genealogy: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Family History Library in Salt Lake City. The place looms so large in the imaginations of genealogists that I was surprised to find, when I finally got there myself, that it wasn't some sort of tall, gleaming castle but rather a plain concrete box. No one seems to mind, though; on the days I went, deep into a frigid winter, dozens of people queued up to get in when the doors opened at 8 a.m. In the warmer months, I'm told, the line stretches for blocks.

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