Panning for ancestral gold

It’s a random weekday evening. I sink into the sofa with my laptop and subconsciously flick through the usual suspects..facebook, the news…back to facebook again. My mind drifts back to work and I flick faster, searching for something that will take my mind somewhere else. But I’m back at work again…until I remember that my colleague was talking about researching her family tree at lunchtime. I’d love to do that I’d said, but doubted I’d get far with written records of a travelling family.

Before I know it I’m on a two week trial of ancestry.com and I’ve started a family tree. I’m not sure how this works exactly, but I add myself, my parents and my paternal grandmother, Esther. I work out roughly when she would have been born and boom- a green leaf appears. And so it starts.

I’m not the first. Others have been here already and left a trail of green leaves for me to follow. Esther’s parents are there. These names I’ve vaguely heard before. I wonder how far back these green leaves go. Each generation brings another choice of which parent to follow back. I stick with my grandmother’s original surname (another story), Beaney.

Soon I am racing, racing through the names of strangers. Today I’m not a researcher meticulously checking my sources to make sure that these strangers are my strangers; I’m panning for gold. I’m panning and picking out the nuggets. But I’m not interested in these nuggets, these strangers. I’m just panning until there is nothing left to pan.

The Beaney trail goes cold in 1589. 1589! But I’m disappointed. In spite of the hundreds of years of family information that I didn’t think would even exist, I want the thrill of the chase. Who was my 12th great grandfather, William Beaney, born to in 1589? Is this a hint that the Beaneys have Romani ancestry and arrived in the country at that time?

But I have no time to ponder, the race is back on. It’s two hundred years earlier and another William Beaney and his wife Elizabeth Gallop. They are my 6th great grandparents and I’m galloping through Elizabeth’s ancestors. It’s 1385 and John Gallop (no record of his wife) is my 14th great-grandfather. Yes! The Gallops are winning the ancestral race.

It’s late and I’d promised myself an early night. I turned the heater off a while ago and it’s getting cold. But I can’t stop. I’m not done consuming and I rapidly hunt for other leads against the clock. A lead. It’s my 11th great-grandmother Alice Temple and suddenly I couldn’t be further from where I started. Sir and Lady start appearing in front of the names of these Temple ancestors. I laugh. I’m distracted briefly by the people behind the names. How did these families become entwined? What kind of characters were William Beaney and Elizabeth Gallop, and how did they end up together?

But this moment of thought is only fleeting and I’m panning for gold again with an insatiable appetite to consume the names and dates of my medieval ancestors. One of the benefits of having ‘Sir’ in front of your name, I guess, is that your descendants are more likely to know your name a thousand years later. But each name is forgotten as soon as it’s replaced by an older, and therefore, more exciting nugget of ancestry. Sir/Lady trumps average Joe and King/Queen trumps all. King…yes- King Malcolm II Scotland is apparently my 29th great-grandfather. Ha! I laugh out loud this time. I follow the Kings back to B.C. in Ireland, each with a nickname to go along with their status of King. I finally get to my 70th great-grandfather King Cormac ‘Long Beard’ of Ireland.

But I can’t remember the other nicknames. They’re just names on a website, hundreds of ancestral nuggets freshly panned in the space of an evening. Online genealogy allowed me to consume hundreds of my ancestors in an evening without really learning a thing about them. I was a genealogical magpie collecting details from other people’s family trees to construct one of my own. This relied on the accuracy of these other trees and I laughed again when I realised that one of my ‘ancestors’ in the 1700s died 50 years before his ‘son’ was born! So maybe all of that panning for gold was leading me up the wrong family tree.

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