Why Genealogy Matters: Learning History and Tolerance, By Tyler Tichelaar

genealogy and tolerance, well-being in MI's Upper Peninsula

“Genealogy was her favorite insanity.” — Anthony Trollope

When I start talking about genealogy, people often don’t understand how I can get so excited about dead people. They might think the only reason people are interested in genealogy is to claim descent from royalty or someone famous. But genealogy teaches far more than ancestral pride.

My interest in genealogy began from stories my grandfather told me about growing up in Marquette. After his death, I wanted to learn more about my family, including why they had come to Marquette. To find out, I visited the local cemeteries, the Family History Center at the LDS Church in Harvey, the County Courthouse and the Marquette County History Museum. I discovered my ancestor, Basil Bishop, had owned a forge in New York and came to Marquette to work in the iron industry. After learning a great deal about my Marquette ancestors, I decided I wanted to know about their ancestors.

I learned Basil Bishop’s father and grandfathers had fought in the American Revolution. Their ancestors had been New England Puritans. I discovered a vast amount about the Puritans from researching those family members. The most prominent ancestor was Thomas Dudley (1576-1653), second governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He presided over the notorious Anne Hutchinson trial and signed the charter to establish Harvard College. Although Dudley is not a household name today, his contributions to American history are vast. His descendants number in the tens of thousands and include Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Presidential Nominee John Kerry. But what about Governor Dudley’s ancestors?

Have you ever considered how many ancestors you have?

You have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents. Each generation back, the number doubles. Thomas Dudley is my 11-greats grandfather—one of 8,384 ancestors in that generation, and one of only 6 whose names I know. I wish I knew the other 8,378 ancestors’ stories.

Another 7 generations back, to my 18-greats grandparents, provides over one million ancestors in that generation. However, the numbers do not consistently double because people married someone who was at least a distant cousin, so many ancestors appear multiple times in a family tree. The result—everyone ends up related in multiple ways. In fact, Thomas Dudley is descended from King Alfred the Great (reigned 871-899) by 28 different lines.

My point isn’t to impress you with my ancestry but to reveal the human family’s closeness. DNA research reveals that everyone of European descent alive today is descended from everyone who lived in Europe and had children before 1200 A.D. (See Mapping Human History by Steve Olson). That means every white person alive is descended from Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, and William the Conqueror.

Consider how such a connection affects questions of race. When people ask what nationality I am, I might say Dutch or Irish because my ancestors came to the United States from the Netherlands or Ireland, but because I’m descended from everyone who lived in Europe and had children before 1200 A.D., I have ancestors from every European country from Spain to Finland to Hungary to Greece. I’ve done the research to confirm it.

Genealogy proves that race does not exist.

For example, one of Thomas Dudley’s ancestors was King Edward III of England (reigned 1327-1377). Was he really English? His mother was Isabella, Princess of France. Isabella’s grandmother was Princess Isabel of Aragon (now part of Spain). Her mother was Jolan, Princess of Hungary. Her great-grandmother was a Russian princess, who was descended from Swedish royalty.

Racism becomes ridiculous when you consider the bigger picture. In 1066, William the Conqueror of Normandy defeated Harold the Saxon King of England. I’m descended from both of them. Which side do I take? I’m descended from Irish kings as well as the English kings who invaded their lands.

Recently, I discovered I have Asian ancestors. One of my European ancestors was a Byzantine emperor. He married a Persian shah’s daughter. Her ancestors included Indian maharajahs and Chinese emperors. Xerxes the Great (known today from the movie 300) is one of my countless Asian ancestors. I may not look Chinese, Persian or Indian, but their blood is mingled in me with the French, Polish, Hungarian and Swedish. No doubt I have African ancestors also, whom I look forward to discovering.

My ancestry is your ancestry. Race does not exist. It’s time we realized we are all one family and we need to get along.

Editorial note:  Explore your own family history by joining the Marquette County Genealogical Society, searching online at familysearch.org, researching county records, and interviewing family members.

Tyler R. Tichelaar is the author of The Marquette Trilogy and recently published The Only Thing That Lasts. Genealogy research inspired his novels. For more information, visit www.MarquetteFiction.com

Excerpted with permission from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Summer 2009. Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.