ONE HUNDRED MILLION Americans are tracing their roots, and while genealogy is a fast-growing American pursuit, many people begin their search with little more than an old photograph and a shred of a family tale. That’s all I had, though what I learned is that much can be learned from very little. How about you? Have some family heirloom that’s longing to speak to you? I’m here to teach you how to get that thing to talk.
A few years ago, while researching a book on redheads, I tried to trace my own hair color.
On my mother’s side is Ethan Allen, the Revolutionary War hero whose shock of red hair was only one of his striking features. On our father’s side I had little to go on except that he was a redhead, as was his mother.
But I had an unidentified glass slide, as well as a crumbling paper on which my paternal grandfather had written: “My mother’s name was Annie Madsen Johnston. Her father drowned in the Mersey River when she was ten. Alexander Johnston. 1865. He was a Dane. A ship’s rigger.” The slide and the note were found years apart in separate boxes. I always wondered if one went with the other.
None of this interested my sister, Margaret. She never liked that grandfather, she doesn’t have red hair, and she pretty much thought I was off on the kind of wild-goose chase that little sisters are famous for. Ah, birth order and its insistent stereotypes. (Here’s another: One person always gets designated as clan genealogist. Which one? Tell me your tale, and we’ll see if I’m right.)
I emailed a print of the slide to merchant marine offices in England, seafaring collections, even a hat museum in London. I hired Origins Network, a genealogy firm specializing in English ancestors. All I learned was that no efforts were made to pluck drowning victims from the River and so, no burial, no cemetery record—nothing.
Hours passed in the basement of a local Mormon Church, utilizing the vast genealogy resources amassed as a public service by the Church of the Latter Day Saints (we grew up next door to another local Mormon church, but were not members). Now online and free to all, their Personal Ancestral File (PAF) software, while remarkable, held no clues to my ancestor.
Refusing to be undeterred, (another second sister birth-order trait), I switched tacks, trying merely to match my grandfather’s note to the photo, and called Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, America’s premier maritime museum, and soon was spending the afternoon with Matt Otto, Mystic Seaport’s head rigger.
“That’s your rigger,” he said, explaining that the rigger’s hands and face were smudged with the black pine tar only another rigger would recognize and how the finger pads were wide from years of running line beneath them.
“There was a district in Liverpool that made these,” said Matt, tapping the hat in the photo.
Liverpool. Of course. On the Mersey River, it’s a main port, and the site from which my grandparents left by ship to come to America.
“It’s straw. Called a broad-sennett hat. It’s made of cane stock,” he said, as I felt myself get braided ever more deeply into a story that I had once thought was only about my hair.
And Margaret? She now displays the rigger’s image in her home and, I’d like to add, she loves it.