When you start down a road in your family’s history, you never know whose paths may have crossed in the past. Actor Martin Sheen found that out on the first episode of this season of Who Do You Think You Are?. In a mind-bending twist of fate, he learned that a great-great-great-great-grandfather on his grandmother’s side and a great-great-great-great-grandmother on his grandfather’s side had a surprising and unpleasant association 150 years before his grandparents married and connected these two branches into one family. (BTW, you can catch the episode online at www.nbc.com.)
As interesting as it was, if you think about it, it’s shouldn’t be too surprising that branches of your family tree occasionally cross before they connect. In my own files, I have a newspaper clipping about the wedding of a Brooklyn, New York, politician’s daughter. The clipping not only describes the wedding in great detail but also lists all of the guests—and this was no small affair. The guest list was rife with politicians, including ex-president Grover Cleveland and his wife, the governor, a senator, and several congressmen. The father of the bride was no slouch either; he was well-known in political circles as the “Boss” of Brooklyn.
Two of my relatives were also there, and some thirty years later, their grandchildren would marry. While it’s no bombshell like the one dropped on Martin Sheen, it’s a good reminder that your ancestors were part of a community in which their lives intertwined. My two relatives at that wedding were both on the police force, one the ex-commissioner, and the other a patrolman who had worked his way up to become a captain. So they may easily have known each other through their work and shared some mutual friends.
Learning about the people your ancestor interacted with can really bring your family history to life. Start a list of your ancestor’s associates—people whose names appear as sponsors, in-laws, witnesses, business partners, members of a religious community, or even just neighbors. Then hop on Ancestry.com and see what you can turn up on them. Check census records, directories, and historical newspapers for mentions.
As you learn more about them, you’ll get to know your ancestor’s community. If that’s not enough inspiration, keep in mind that immigrants and families often traveled and settled with people they knew. Tracing the origins of your ancestor’s friends and neighbors may lead you to your own ancestor’s roots.
And of course, don’t overlook a direct ancestor’s siblings. Martin Sheen uncovered two compelling stories about two different uncles who shared some of the same political passion. You never know what stories are waiting just off your direct line.
So, now you’ve heard my story. What’s yours? Have you found a connection in your family tree that had you raising an eyebrow or shouting for someone to come take a look at this? Or maybe an inspiring story about your ancestor’s sibling? Please share it in the comments, or email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.