In Pursuit of Ancestors


By Terry Hogan


Did you ever wonder why so many folks pursue genealogy?  It can easily become an obsession as it is not unlike a computer game with ever-increasing levels of difficulties to overcome.  Genealogists can be bores.  We can even bore our own relatives with tales of ancestors and tales of the pursuit of ancestors.  Just think how boring we can be to non-relatives.  But why do we hunt down our ancestors?  Why the need? Why take the risk?


Frankly, I cannot answer for the myriad of researchers combing libraries, courthouses, cemeteries and internet data bases.  I can only try to answer from a personal perspective, which may or may not find a harmonic chord in other researchers’ reasons.


I think part of it has to do with trying to impose reason and purpose in a largely chaotic world.  Genealogy is driven by some of the same reasons that folks seek out and believe in a deity of one type or another. I think humans are a lonely, logical lot who try to provide order and reason to a disorderly, hazardous, and generally unruly world.


There is an old saying, to the effect, that if you don’t know where you came from, it doesn’t matter which way you go.  We find that a hard concept to set our life’s compass by.  We need to feel that there is some sort of magnetic north in life; a reason for being.


If you have studied genetics, you can come up with the amazingly unsatisfying conclusion that we are mere vessels carrying around genetic material (DNA). 
The DNA has created us in the mode we are merely to ensure that we live long enough to transfer the DNA to new vessels (children) before we wear out, or by other means, die.


By backtracking, we are trying to find a reason for our existence.  The very structure of our research, starting with ourselves and going backwards in time, creates a linearity that suggests all of our ancestors lived and died to produce us. 


Of course this is grossly incorrect.  But it also raises even a more disconcerting note.  If one goes beyond the mere superficial aspects of names, dates, and places, the whims of life with all its dangers, unfold.  Go back a few generations and there are nearly an infinite number or opportunities for the family history to have been different; to have unfolded without your own presence.  There may be the obvious ones like the Civil War bullet that hit your ancestor’s belt buckle instead of his stomach. There may also be the less anticipated one where an ancestor’s spouse and family die of disease and your line comes from the new family from the second marriage.


Life is a dangerous business.  Genealogy provides all too much documentation on all the ways for it to end.  Research might even show a genetic propensity for terminal diseases. Breast cancer tends to run in families.  Hemophilia is carried by the female line, but is expressed in the male descendants.  I came across a line of Hogans in Kentucky that I thought might be related to my own.  Luckily, they were not.  A bride from Maryland introduced hemophilia into the Hogan line and nearly all her sons bled to death before marrying.  Several cut themselves while shaving, or by means of other relatively minor wounds, bled to death.  


The medical aspect of genealogy can only increase in importance with time.  This may be good or bad.  Like so many things, it depends on how the knowledge is used.  For males, a DNA test of the Y-chromosome (only carried by males), can suggest family linkages based on statistical analysis of the similarity of specific genes on the Y-chromosome.  However, there is no reason to believe that such tests will stop with the Y-chromosome.  Once the family linkage is established genetically, the genetic propensity to develop cancer, hemophilia, and many other diseases can begin to be traced by family histories and/or by genetic testing on other chromosomes.


The good side is that fore-knowledge of a propensity may positively affect screening for the occurrence of the disease.  For example, a propensity for breast cancer may encourage the individual to undergo more frequent mammograms to detect cancer at an earlier stage.  The bad side is if the insurance companies gain access to the information and either deny coverage or increase coverage costs because of family histories.


While obviously a personal value judgment, I think it is fair for an insurance company to charge more for medical coverage if the person elects to smoke, drink excessively, or participates in exceptionally dangerous hobbies.  It is a personal choice.  On the other hand, few of us can be directly held accountable for the genetic material handed down by our ancestors.  As we had no “free will choice” for a propensity toward certain illnesses, coverage denial or increased premiums should not be charged.  That is, after all, what insurance is about…pooling the risk.


So is it a good thing to look back and backtrack our ancestors?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  If you are willing to take the risk of finding nefarious folk, “warts and all”, go ahead.  If you are looking for the royal bloodline, don’t bother.  Keep in mind the following point. Most of the immigrants came to America to find a better life.  If they were part of a royal lineage, becoming an immigrant seems an unlikely choice.  


If you decide to go hunting, remember, rats are more abundant than lions.