This blog has been quiet for a while as I worked on other projects, but it seems like a good time to share what I’ve learned on my roots adventure.
After having my DNA tested and helping to launch Pacific Sámi Searvi, I worked to gather all the information available about my family’s history from FamilyTreeDNA.com, Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com, geni.com, and other resources, including census records and newspaper archives.
Last April, I shared the fruits of this research with my parents on a visit, but they were not terribly interested. My mother is certain some of the names in my files are incorrect, and she is deeply suspicious of the internet, as well she should be. It is true that there are errors in the online trees, and now some of them are my fault (I am quick to correct them, of course, when brought to my attention).
On that visit to my parents, a cousin stopped in for coffee. I peppered her with questions, but she just laughed and suggested I call her brother. He in turn gave me the phone number of a 91-year old relative living in Oregon. Was I getting the run-around, I wondered. The notorious Scandinavian reserve runs strong in our family.
But “Auntie,” as she asked me to call her, was delighted to receive my call, and invited me over. She was anything but reserved, spry, bright as a tack, and so exuberant in her generosity that we stayed up past 11 pm going through photograph albums. What a treasure trove. I came home with audio (she was happy to be recorded), photographs of her photographs, and colorful stories about her childhood in North Dakota. Her mother Hilda was my grandfather’s little sister, and to my surprise, preceded him in immigrating from Sweden. An elder sister had arrived even earlier, followed by their father Erik and a brother John (the men returned to Sweden).
On the wall of her “plunder room,” Auntie has a large photograph of Erik, my great-grandfather, in an oval frame under not-entirely-transparent glass. I could not stop staring at it. Why did he return to Sweden? What inspired (or required) his daughters to emigrate? What about my grandfather?
Based on scant facts, a little tintype of his handsome face, and no doubt the “immigrant” trope I’d picked up from books and movies, I had imagined my grandfather as a young man arriving alone at Ellis Island, with no money or prospects, and managing, through sheer dint of character, to bootstrap himself to success. To him we owed our gratitude for saving us from penury in Swedish Lapland. But the truth is complex, and much more interesting. After he lost his mother at age 14, he worked as a drang, or farmhand, until he joined the army. His sister was the first to come to America, to wed a local boy who was setting up a tack shop in Henry, South Dakota. Little Lena. Not even 5 feet tall, was the pioneer.
The information from Auntie was the tip of the iceberg. Soon I was meeting so many cousins, in person and online, that I felt overwhelmed, and had to take frequent breaks from research. Almost daily, a message would arrive saying “We’ve found a new family connection!” (from a genealogy site) or “Hello, I think we might be related” (from a potential cousin).
But I always enjoy connecting relatives, criss-crossing the globe via instant message and email. A newfound cousin in Dallas was put in touch with my sister living 20 minutes away (they’ve met for coffee). A potential cousin living in England found me online, inquiring about her ancestry, given our DNA match, and the roadblocks she’d found since her grandfather was adopted. My research revealed a painful story that I wasn’t prepared to tell, so I referred her to Auntie.
More recently, a young cousin in Minnesota found me via ancestry.com; I think we were baptized in the same church. I sent her links to my blogs (hi, cuz!) and she sent me a lovely photo and letter for my files. She visited the cultural center in Duluth to learn more about the Sámi, and got tickets to see Sofia Jannok in Minneapolis (I’m so jealous). Maybe I can talk her into a guest post about her journey.
One time a family connection was borne of sheer friendliness, with no help from the internet. My friend’s cousin Anne, from Finland, happened to be visiting on the Fourth of July and while we watched the fireworks, I told her about my Finnish ancestry from Ylitornio. She put me in touch with a friend of hers in Finland, who “might be related.” Sure enough. Soon I was connecting this newfound cousin to other relatives, nearer to her.
It works the other way, too, with kin in Europe putting me in touch with American relatives. A genealogist in Helsinki introduced me via Facebook to CeCe Moore in Los Angeles. Cece is a DNA consultant for the PBS show “Finding Your Roots” and a lovely person with whom I share some DNA. We haven’t found our common ancestor yet, but I’m confident it is just a matter of time.
Several relatives emailed me files with lengthy family lists, in Swedish and Finnish. How is it even possible to comb through all those names? Thank heavens for Macbook Pro’s global search function. I can easily find out if any the files on my hard drive include a particular name or village. I have developed a habit of transcribing my notes, however vague or dicey, and saving them text files so they are searchable (it’s important to include various ways of spelling the names). Now when a fact seems solid, I can enter it into ancestry.com or Family Tree Maker, and the two sync automatically.
I am giving myself plenty of time (as in a lifetime) to enter the data. There’s no hurry, and endless rabbit-holes.
However, the desire to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors grows stronger each day. A few weeks ago, I started Swedish lessons and began making plans to visit my ancestral villages. No doubt I’ll return with a different sense of family, and perhaps a better sense of how our mixed ancestry has contributed to our relationships with one another.
I may never learn why great-great-great grandfather changed his Sámi surname to a Swedish one, or why his son came to America and returned home. And that’s okay.
The questioning itself is a kind of re-membering.