All in the family tree: Digging into the past can reveal a lot about your present
By Mina Yuan
Preserved Fish. Angus Pattie.
Perhaps they both sound like food.
Except Preserved Fish and Angus Pattie are the names of real people. And while Fish may have thought it rather ironic that his name matched his occupation—a whaleboat captain—he probably never thought twice about the origin of his name or the story behind it.
For many people, names are just words that are used to refer to each other. But to genealogist J.H. Fonkert, names mean far more than that.
A former employee of the state government, Fonkert was inspired to study family history professionally thanks to his own last name. His grandfather, a Swedish immigrant who came to Iowa in the early 1900s, died when Fonkert was only in seventh or eighth grade—leaving the rest of the family wondering about his immigration.
“When my mother died, I discovered a box of old letters that had been written from my grandfather’s family back in Sweden to him in 1910,” Fonkert said. “There were all these interesting things … a sort of mystery about where we came from.”
Having tracked several quirky family histories—ranging from his own probable seventh cousin, Princess Margriet of the Netherlands, to a client with an ax murderer as a great-grandfather—Fonkert said genealogy fans love to discover a good story. The best are not only interesting to tell, but also reveal something about the person unraveling it.
“There is an 84-page book that was written by my mom’s grandma. She wrote about her life and the family background,” said Annika Seager, a Wayzata High School freshman. “From the book I learned that almost every family member from that side of my family has played or plays some type of instrument or sang.
“I have studied the violin for several years without knowing that I come from a long line of musicians. Music has always been very important to me. It has always felt as though it’s a part of me, while it actually is a part of me.”
ROAD TO POPULARITY
As professional genealogists know, the path to defining family stories is not as short as some might believe.
The best place to start is the town where a family member lived. That’s where records (birth, death and cemetery) are stored, Fonkert said. Family Bibles or stories passed down orally from generations are also helpful.
For her personal backstory, Seager was able to reference a 132-page book called “The Seager Families of Colonial New England.” The book, about her dad’s side of the family, dates back to the 1500s.
“Inside, there is an article … titled ‘An Incident at Hartford.’ The article goes into details about how one of my ancestors from the 1600s was convicted of witchcraft,” she said.
It’s rare to have that much family information so readily available, Fonkert said. Most people seeking long-forgotten information have to continue to the next step, which often involves scanning the government census that is taken once every ten years.
Fonkert also suggests ancestry.com, a popular online database containing family trees, as a starting place for beginners.
“Most people, unless they’re really trying to solve a difficult problem, can do this on their own,” Fonkert said. “After all, the fun is in doing it yourself … You look at the census record, and oh, there’s my great-grandfather.”
The mere existence of ancestry.com and other online databases points to an enormous change in the genealogy industry over the last few years. Fonkert also attributes the surge in popularity to “Who Do You Think You Are?”—an American television show that researched the ancestry of celebrities like Jim Parsons, J.K. Rowling and Sarah Jessica Parker.
“The fact that there are commercial companies out there thinking there’s a large enough market to buy advertisements is a sign of what’s happening,” Fonkert said. “And of course, that … reaches people who are sitting at home who have never thought of it before.”
OLD VERSUS NEW
While a spike in genealogical interest has had an impact on retirees from the Baby Boom generation, for teens, it still appears to be buried history.
“I think a lot of teens are just not very appreciative of what their families went through,” said Smita Bhoopatiraju, a freshman at Wayzata High School. “Many teens simply don’t care, which I think is kind of pathetic. Too many people are wrapped up in social media and their own personal lives, which doesn’t allow people to find out new things.
“I hate to go all philosophical, but I think everyone needs to slow down and look to the past occasionally. What may happen in the future is important, but everyone can stop and observe or learn something once in awhile.”
“If young means people under 40, then yes, I’ve seen more young people showing up at conferences,” Fonkert said, laughing. “I mean, I think there are a lot of junior high and high school students who are genuinely interested, but they have a lot of other things on their minds. I don’t know how cool it would be coming out with your friends on a Friday night and saying, ‘Oh, I was doing my genealogy last night.’ But hey, I haven’t been a teenager for 50 years.”
While genealogy might not be able to compete with Instagram for the attention of today’s teen, Fonkert stressed that learning about family history can have a deeper impact for all ages.
“I actually think it makes people more appreciative of our differences as a community. I think it increases people’s respect for another person because you become aware that we all brought different traditions and histories with us,” Fonkert said. “And yet here we are, all together. We are all on the same boat. We are all Americans. We are all Minnesotans.”