According to Adam Rutherford, author of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, “We only have to go back a few dozen centuries to see that most of the 7 billion of us alive today are descended from a tiny handful of people, the population of a village.” A few dozen centuries (3,600 years), at 20-30 years per generation (say 25 years) is 144 generations. If ancestry were binary (with your two parents doubling to four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on) and straightforward as it moved backward, “a single individual alive today would, over 30 generations…have roughly a billion ancestors, more than the total world population at the time. This apparent paradox occurs because the individuals in the binary tree are not distinct: instead, a single individual may occupy multiple places in the binary tree. This typically happens when the parents of an ancestor are cousins…For example, the offspring of two first cousins has at most only six great-grandparents instead of the normal eight. This reduction in the number of ancestors is pedigree collapse.”
Nearly twenty years ago, I began researching my ancestry, in order to create a family tree. I did so by carefully studying old census records, viewing ship manifests, scouring through my ancestors’ original land records, requesting birth, marriage, death and naturalization records, confirming dates using the SSDI, and reaching out to relatives in hopes of gaining clues to family connections. Through these efforts, I learned a lot, including the fact that my familial pedigree collapse begins with my parents, who are fourth cousins. Upon hearing this fact, my mom quipped, “Well, I guess we’ll have to get a divorce.” For all of my efforts to compile a family tree, I keep in mind something else Rutherford wrote, “Despite our differences, all humans are remarkably close relatives, and our family tree is pollarded, and tortuous, and not in the slightest bit like a tree.” Good to know.
After becoming interested in genealogy, I read Lisa See’s On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family. It’s the story of her great-great-grandfather’s 1867 arrival “in America, where he prescribed herbal remedies to immigrant laborers who were treated little better than slaves. His son Fong See later built a mercantile empire and married a Caucasian woman, in spite of laws prohibiting interracial marriage.” Lee’s research and writing are excellent, but most people would agree that their own ancestors’ stories are often more interesting than those of a complex but complete stranger. Jeannette Walls does something entirely different in her writings about her grandmother Lily Casey Smith’s life in Half-Broke Horses (described as a “true-life novel”) and the result is fantastic, “By age six, Lily was helping her father break horses. At fifteen, she left home to teach in a frontier town—riding five hundred miles on her pony, alone, to get to her job. She learned to drive a car and fly a plane. And, with her husband, Jim, she ran a vast ranch in Arizona.” These stories intrigued me, but after a few years of family history research, I moved on to other pursuits. It wasn’t until recently, after 23andMe and Ancestry provided my DNA results and I finished Rutherford’s book that I returned.
My husband claims a connection to a passenger on the Mayflower, and, he likes to remind me–Charlemagne. We used to joke about how his line was descended from kings, and mine from peasants. But no more. Rutherford explains, “Everyone alive in the tenth century who left descendants is the ancestor of every living European today, including Charlemagne…” In the early 1800s, my ethnic-German ancestors settled in the Russian steppe and spent several generations there before immigrating to the U.S. They were definitely of European extraction (and according to 23andMe, I’m 99.7% European), which means that my line includes both peasants and kings–at least one.
All of my ancestors who immigrated to America settled in McIntosh County, North Dakota and all but one couple became homesteaders, farmers who lived and worked the land, typically, while raising large families, which was an extremely challenging life for the entire family. Only my father’s maternal grandparents, Friedericka Fischer and Johann Rau, chose a different route. In 1911 at the age of 21, they fled Russia to avoid John’s conscription in the military. Their ship manifest lists the two as step-siblings, which came as a surprise. Frieda’s occupation is shown as “maid servant,” while her fiancé John’s as “farm laborer.” Neither did either. They married a month after their arrival and Frieda gave birth to the first of their ten children five months later. John worked for the Soo line railroad until he contracted pneumonia and died at the age of 47, leaving his widow with several children to raise on her own. Fortunately, in Russia, Frieda had been trained in the ways of the brauchere. From 1940 until a few years before her death, she engaged in the practice in order to support her family. A recent Urban Anthropology, Inc. article explains, “An important folk medicine tradition [among German Russians] was the brauche. Here certain healing arts were passed on through female lines…It was believed that if these women learned their crafts and maintained a strong belief in God, they could cure most illnesses…The brauchere would…repeat certain secret rhymes and rituals. Three times in succession they repeated ‘In honor of the Father, Son, Holy Ghost.‘” You can imagine the conflict that might arise within a community of Christians when faced with a woman who treats illnesses in such a way; however, anecdotal evidence suggest that she was an accepted member of her local church and helped hundreds of clients throughout her 17-year career.
As I continue along on my genealogical journey, another line from Rutherford’s book rings true, “The further back we go, the more the certainty of ancestry increases, though the knowledge of our ancestors decreases. It is simultaneously wonderful, trivial, meaningless, and fun.” The Catch-22 of it all is that when the opportunity to ask my grandparents about their lives arose, I wasn’t yet interested, and by the time I was, they had passed away and I’d lost my chance. If I could go back in time, I would simply say, “Grandma, Grandpa, I would love to know anything you might be willing to share about your childhood and your parents. I am all ears.”