words | Marcus Killick
It could be my age. I can think of no other acceptable reason. I have not joined a religion which promotes it, nor developed a passion for social history. It must be my age. A couple of months ago I joined Ancestry.Com.
This website, which has a crack cocaine like capacity for addiction, is a vast database of births, marriages, deaths, censuses, electoral registers, ship passenger manifests etc. It is set up to enable you to track your ancestors (the clue is in its name) back into the mists of time. You, together with hundreds of thousands of others, can make your family tree public and trace connections. This links your time line with those of people you would probably never otherwise have met, and probably for good reason.
It started innocently enough; my ex had been doing it off and on for a number of years, tracking back, particularly her Jewish ancestry. I suppose having a blend of Jewish and Irish Catholic roots made it that much more interesting for her. In the certainty that my family was entirely made up of people from Cornwall, other areas of the South of England, and a touch of Channel Islands thrown in, a similar hunt did not provide the same excitement for me.
Then Ancestry.Com introduced DNA testing as a way to fast track your journey to the past. In what could prove to be the largest, longest and probably most boring Jeremy Kyle show in history, countless people bought the kits, swabbed the inside of their mouths and sent their tests off for analysis. The Metropolitan Police would kill for that sort of data. Civil rights groups have fought for generations to keep such information private. Yet, there it was, people not only handing over the deepest secrets of what makes them them, but actually paying for the privilege.
I decided to give it a go. To be exact, I persuaded my parents to do so, on the premise it would make my subsequent research easier. Unless my mother has been lying all these years, my DNA had to come from them, so my also doing the test was unnecessary. The tests were done, the saliva posted, and a couple of months later the results came back.
My mother’s came first. Apparently, I am not as much of a Brit as I had thought. According to the results, the strongest links were Irish with some British and Western European thrown in. The Irish bit I could understand. Given the predominance of my Cornish roots, a heavy Celtic dominance was to be expected. What was not expected was a trace element. Apparently, a part of my mum, albeit a small one, is Native American. Somewhere in my ancestry is a member of the Cherokee. OK, the test is not that accurate and she could be part Mexican, but as I don’t want a wall built around me by a deranged US president anytime soon, I am saying it is Cherokee. Prove me wrong.
To say my research turned from that of mild interest to obsessive would be an understatement. I spent countless hours reviewing numerous documents online, checking other families trees, googling and emailing others I had found a trail to. Nothing, zip, zero. Apparently, Pocahontas was not my great great grandmother. I did, however, find my forefathers seemed to have been part of the backbone of the agrarian economy in the Middle Ages. Some did immigrate to the USA either as Quakers or later, in the 19th Century, as part of the Cornish diaspora (about 250,000 Cornish folk left, when the tin industry collapsed, to find their fame or at least survival as miners in the USA, Canada and Australia). However, I could find no trace of any tribal members coming the other way and taking a shine to one of my female ancestors.
Then, my father’s results arrived. Irish again (tick, Cornish Celts), British and some Scandinavian. With the latter, the height and flowing blond hair have not made it down the DNA line. The blue eyes did though, so I have to be grateful to the Vikings for something. Then, I looked at the trace elements. He is a part Indian, or at least Indian subcontinent. Now, he has been my dad for over 53 years and he has definitely not given any signs of that piece of him. Well, not unless you count the fact he likes Indian tonic water with his gin.
I would like to dismiss the testing as a con, or at least widely inaccurate. The trouble is that I have used the DNA comparisons to link up with far flung relatives with whom a definite ancestry link has been established. Anyway, I don’t really care, telling my parents of their roots made the exercise worthwhile. At least it showed there were no Scottish strands. A relief as it was a prejudice my father has held since the Royal Bank of Scotland took over the bank where he worked. He disliked Fred Goodwyn long before the rest of us.
So what else do I now know? I am far more aware of 18th and 19th century poverty in the UK. My ancestors, coming from the bottom rung, had large families and high infant mortality, although life expectancy for the survivors was higher than I expected for that time, with a number living into their eighties. I tracked their migration from the countryside to the towns and the previous generational lack of movement as sons followed fathers down the mines. I have read about what life was like for them then. I have tracked one from his conviction and sentence of transportation, to his time on a hulk in Portsmouth Harbour. I even know the crime for which he was convicted (stealing a coat). I have seen courts orders of paternity against one to pay for his “bastard child”. A number of them were last recorded in censuses as living in various towns poorhouses.
I have also learned that a number of family trees online should be treated with huge skepticism. I briefly believed I was related to Robert the Bruce, until a more detailed enquiry showed his alleged father was born after him, according to the family tree I was looking at a the time. Unless there was the proverbial “accident with a contraceptive in a time machine”, Robert and I do not share the same blood.
I have spent countless hours tracing branches to which later discoveries have shown there were no links. According to one, I have a direct link to the Plantagenets, regretfully via that most popular of monarchs, John. Another line indicated it is possible I can reclaim Wales, if the branch which winds its way to Llewelyn The Great is to be believed, and to be mine. Yet another may be the same person as a knight recorded as having fought in the Battle of Hastings, but on the winning team, which is, in truth a bit of a disappointment. I very much doubt all this, as my ancestors seriously had to have “married up” for them to be right. Social mobility was never very frequent back then.
The fact is there are no perfect short cuts. Names change over time. There was a habit of giving sons, nephews etc the same name. Often the origins of a surname are geographical rather than ancestral. Tregembo, one of my Cornish roots and my paternal grandmother’s maiden name, translates as a “farm by a house where two streams meet”. Yes, Cornish Gaelic had a word for that! I am amazed that this language did not prosper.
Many family trees are aspirational rather than actual. The Americans seem most keen to prove links to royalty or Ireland in their past and some are willing to make wild ancestry assumptions. The Australians like to prove their journey to that far away land was not at Her Majesty’s pleasure but because they were soldiers or parsons. Everyone has their own chip.
So why do it? I found it to be the most absorbing way to learn history, not about leaders and kings (if you happen to be one your “tracing” will take about a minute) but from the point of view of the majority, the men and women in the field or down the mine. It’s where you would have been if you had been alive two hundred years ago. It also makes you appreciate this modern world and realise that in truth, for most of us, like those who pay to join ancestral websites and for their DNA to be tested, we have never had it so good.