Writing Genealogy: Starting Off


The moment we sit down to begin a genealogical journey, we realize we should have started long ago, actually penning to paper, in real-time, what our dearly departed had vocalized. That is especially true for the faceless, those ancestors, we never met.  What commonly happened was this; Grandfather identified his grandmother by name, and thereafter, spoke of her as “my grandmother”.    The thought to ask “what was your grandmother’s name, again”, did not occur, because her presence continued to be imagined, when referenced as “my grandmother”, even as her name faded.  It takes Grandfather to demise, to realize her name has become uncertain.

One remedy might be found in soliciting living relatives, the older the better.  Our first foray should not confront them with “what was Grandfather’s grandmother’s name”. “It was on the tip of my tongue”, will come the answer! Rather, engage in conversation, and ease around it. Hopefully it will be given up, without having to ask for it.

Before reaching out to others, daydream about Grandfather. Jot down the significant, and the silly.  Especially the silly.  When as a teen, I left the kitchen a wreck, my Grandmother, Janet (Jenny) Dickson (McArthur), would protest that it was worse than a dirty midden. Actually intoned in her Scots, I heard “dearrrtie mitten”. Controlling the sass back, I never inquired on meaning. Today, I howl on my most strict, Nana’s own version, of potty mouth. While this was ancillary to Grandfather’s search, it added a rich layer to their youthful experience, in late 19th Century, Scotland. Things like that drive the genealogical journey forward.  Memories will get you in the mood.

Write down your goal, your intended time and financial commitment.  Time is money, or something.  Not all puzzles will resolve, including those that rely on finding intact documentation from long ago.  Sometimes it makes more sense to smell other roses.  Check out the deviance from your start point, from time to time.

Next, of course, gather documents already at hand. What you have may be skeletal, in which case, organizing the load should be no problem.  Otherwise, well, organizing can be discussed at a later date.

Before looking at the documents, write down: BE SKEPTICAL. Keep in mind that people of yore were just like people of today. They did not always document to the letter of the truth. Sometimes they were deceptive and sometimes understandings were different back then.

My paternal Grandfather, Mathias “Matt” Hemmingsen, serves as example of the deliciously deceptive.  His birth is inked on an 1876 Norwegian Birth Registry.1  It is quite certainly his; his siblings are also recorded, in appropriate time frame, before his and after, as well his parent’s marriage, and those of their predecessors. The family later immigrated to the Mason, Bayfield WI area of the US, over a period of five years: father first, followed by mother with youngest children, then the eldest children.2 Grandfather was in that last group.

Family members emigrated under different surnames; one for father, one for mother, and another for children, as was common to Norwegian naming conventions of the time.  Their surnames were conformed to the father’s, once in the US.

That meant that Grandfather’s subsequent documentation in the US was already complicated by a surname change, beginning around ten years of age.

Now, one of the daydreams about this Grandfather was his telling that the moniker, “dumb Norwegian” was a common derision in Wisconsin, at that time.

Grandfather, it seems, fixed this dumb bias. His mother died following childbirth, about the time of his US arrival. His father now had a number of small children to care for, so Grandfather found himself on his own, working, at an early age. That is, his next census was not with his father, who continued to tout Norwegian birth. No, Grandfather himself, attested that he was born in Wisconsin. 3 He was American! And, certainly, not dumb.

So, Grandfather’s subsequent documentation was now complicated with the surname change and a consequential, purposely erroneous, birthplace change. Only he knew that!

Grandfather moved to Canada. He changed the spelling of his new surname, and continued to plead Wisconsin birth. His documentation forward, now included the original surname change, the erroneous birthplace change, and a third country, compounded with a surname nuance. (Should you wish to know more about Grandfather, look under the Memories tab for “From the logging camps”.)

Most search sites offer suggestions on family trees. They are driven by assembled documents and researcher input.  Their suggestions for Grandfather are wrong. Without the key, that purposeful unauthorized change, they cannot make proper connection.  Someday, I shall correct the record.

Grandfather’s story is not unique. There are many ways documentation will belie the truth, as it is perceived today.  Sticking with birthplace, we are in a different time when births are documented to the minute, at a specific place. In the past, a mother might cite her child’s birth variously on different documents, as the place of her usual residence, versus where she actually gave birth, versus place of baptism, etc. Remember:  BE SKEPTICAL.

This is a good place to catch a breath.  Does anyone have a skeptical story to share?

DISCLAIMER: author is an amateur, inviting comment, correction and learning.

Notes and Sources: Documents Accessed at:  Family Search (FS): https://familysearch.org ©2017 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

  1. Norway: Digitalarkivet.no. Statsarkivet/Trondheim. County: Nordland 823/L0324 Page 48. Parish: 823A01 Hattfjelldal (Item 40 of the ledger for year 1876) https://media.digitalarkivet.no
  2. Digitalarkivet Emigranter fra Trondheim 1867-1930: 05/04/ 1882 Hemmings. Ole, Inman Dampsk Tasso; 22/09/1886 Mathis. Berit, Einer, Marie and Harrold; 08/11/1887 Ols. Henriete, Mathias, Thingvalla. NOTE: Einer, Marie and Harrold were erroneously booked under their mother’s (Berit) surname of Mathis; their surname of record, was Ols.
  3. United States Census Data. Affiliate and data custodian: The United States Archive and Record Administration (NARA) College Park, MD. https://www.archives.gov

Anglicized Names:  Ole Hemmingson, Berit Mathisdatter / Unknown.  Children: Henrietta Church (Hemmingson), Mathias “Matt” Hemmingson (US) / Matt Hemmingsen (CA), Edward Hemmingson (US) / Edward “Ed” Hemmingsen (CA) , Marie Hemmingson, Harold Hemmingson.  The aforementioned were all born in Norway. Not listed above, is George Hemmingson as he was born in Wisconsin, in 1887.


4 thoughts on “Writing Genealogy: Starting Off

  1. My grandmother “lied” about her age. You might think she “lied” to make herself younger, but you would be wrong. Not only did she lie about her own age she lied about my grandfathers age. My grandfather was born in 1880 and my grandmother was born in 1903. They were 23 years apart. Grandmother did the only thing that made sense she made herself older and made my grandfather younger.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Re: your post “Pedigree Collapse and DNA, Friend or Foe?” of May 1, 2018 on your awesome blog. One comes away inspired by your persistence and happy for your way with words, which makes fascinating, but complicated matters, clear. My own work was all low tech; sleuth, assess, surmise, but I’m now considering to add DNA to prove/disprove findings on my maternal grandfather. He was of an unwed mother, then adopted. Cousin marrying cousin wasn’t found in his family, or was missed, but my adoptive great aunt Mary3, had me going. She, Mary3, was my grandfather’s adoptive cousin, suspected of being his biological mother. Her maternal grandmother was Mary5. Mary3’s maternal great uncle married Mary5’s daughter and later, Mary3’s mother, married Mary5’s son. From Mary3’s perspective, Mary5’s children were variously, superscript5 /4. I got to writing around that with ease, to then find that Mary3’s paternal uncle married the daughter of Mary5’s sister, Sarah. That almost collapsed my persistence! (From BMD data at ScotlandsPeople ©Crown Copyright, National Records Scotland) DARN THOSE SUPERSCRIPTS WHICH LOOK AWFULLY LIKE REGULAR NUMBERS! Woe is me!


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