i have to say that i haven't really met with a lot of success on that end, but i have managed to find out a lot about where i come from, both literally and figuratively. in total, i've identified over thirty family names* in my direct history [meaning only those that belong to parents- no aunts and uncles and cousins], going back up to three hundred years, without succumbing to the allure of paid sites like ancestry.com to do my research. and i intend to keep going until i run out of recorded history.
when i tell people about this hobby, their first question [other than asking if i have ocd] is whether or not i'm related to anyone famous. i'm not. in fact, i very much enjoy the ordinariness of my lineage, because i've come to realise that being ordinary doesn't mean one is dull. my several times great grandfather jonathan hickman was born on a boat crossing over to canada from dorset, england. his father had died from a fall on the voyage and his mother had gone into premature labour. those on board the boat were so optimistic about his health that they started to prepare him for burial at sea [read: tossing him overboard while saying a psalm] when his mother, frances corbine hickman, noticed that he was moving just a little. mother and son were safely delivered to the new world and, in fact, thomas flourished, becoming quite financially successful in the newfoundland town where he ended up, and supposedly acting as a pilot for captain james cook. [i've also heard that attributed to jonathan's father-in-law, morgan snook, another immigrant from dorset to st. pierre and finally to newfoundland.] he died in 1847, a few months past his hundredth birthday. personally, i consider that a pretty cool story. [apparently others do as well. once i found my way to this branch of the family, i found a wealth of information available about the man.]
some names have proven exceptionally easy to trace, which i attribute in part to the fact that much of my family comes from very small towns with well-monitored populations and at least a few members who shared my obsession for detailing their lineage. the beaton branch of my family have their own institute in cape breton as testimony to their skill at maintaining historical records. in fact, all of the scottish branches of my family seem to come from a small area of the country around the town of lochaber [although some reloacted from the isle of skye]. all of them ended up in the new world more or less on the end of a pitchfork, having lost much of their ancestral land as a result of their decision to back the stuart family's impossible attempt to claim the british throne, evincing a rather strong irrational will that does seem to have been passed on from one generation to the next.
other branches of the tree are a little more elusive. i have one great-grandfather named bambury who seems like a ghost. even in the tiny, richly documented town with two last names from which he came, he is impossible to trace. the closest i've come is a birth record with his name [although i can't verify it's him because i'm not sure of his exact year of birth] with his parentage listed simply as "son of the late widow bambury". nothing else. no father. no christian name for the mother. and i can't seem to find a death record for her, although one would assume that her death must have occurred the same year as her son's birth [unless he was very late being baptised]. there is also a mysterious, dark-skinned group, whose pictures i have seen, but whose names remain lost [other than the name of the family they married into- ratcliffe].
of course, once i get off the north american continent, with its small, insular communities, things get difficult. tracing family in the united kingdom has proven close to impossible. i know where to look- lochaber, dorset, rhos, bristol, leigh, altrincham, jersey island- but once i'm back in the "mother country", there are a lot more names to deal with and fewer available family histories to draw from. so far.
there's also the challenge of spelling. people in small out-ports working as planters or fishermen were not always literate, so while they might have known their name, there's evidence that they [and the people doing the record-keeping] had distinct ideas on how to spell it. the two great examples i've come across are smerage [smerige, smeridge, smerridge, herridge, smurridge, smirage...] and derkindiren, both of which, i think, suffer from being names of non-english [the latter, i'm given to understand, is dutch] origin transposed to an english-speaking country.
my advice to anyone interested in finding out where they come from is to ask whatever relatives you have. i've been nothing short of amazed at how many of the stories i was told about my family when i was a child have turned out to be true. [for instance, that one deeply protestant part of my family was actually only one generation removed from being catholic. my great-grandmother eliza roberts had married a ship's master, but, not agreeing with his papist ways, had told the church to get bent and raised all the children as protestants while her husband was away at sea. way to stand up to the man, grandma.] i'd also recommend that you google whatever information you can put together. i've been pleasantly surprised to find out how many people have done a lot of work for me and it merely remains for me to tie their family trees to mine.
happy hunting and let me know if we're related.
*in no particular order :: macdonald [multiple variations], chamberlen, snook, beaton, jackson, roberts, earle, royle, bambury, hickman, cox, smerage, parsons, vautier, bennett, rose, cann, ratcliffe, davies, mackillop, macbain, macpherson, campbell, derkindiren, somerton, day, corbine, williams, barnes