Aunt Lou’s shoebox in the attic.
I’ve heard professional genealogists say that the best resource for family history is that aunt—the one that collects everything from photos to records to news clippings to family lore, and keeps it all in some shoebox in the attic. These aunts, they say, are the first and best and most passionate of genealogists, with a wealth of family history that would otherwise be lost forever. I don’t doubt it.
When I was about 12, my aunt (that one) introduced me to a book called A Short Line Across America. It began with John Short, the son of a Scottish immigrant born near Shenandoah Virginia in 1756 (d. 1836), and traveled through all kinds of historical detail to arrive at my grandpa, H. Ray Short (1927-2012) in California. It even included a few footnotes for my mom, dad, and me (p. 134).
That’s when I first felt it—the pull to learn more about my family history, a visceral desire to somehow research, discover, and just know about my ancestors. Maybe it was the old photographs, stories, and journal entries. Maybe it was the details and timelines. Maybe it was seeing my name in print. Whatever the reason, that experience gave me a new mission: to find out all I could about the Smith side of my family.
The wrong William.
So, years before FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com, that aunt taught me how to get started. I gathered what I could from living family members and eventually headed off to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City for help. I explained that I didn’t have much to go on besides an area of the country (Connecticut) and the names of my grandfather and great-grandfather. They assured me it would be enough to get started, but that was before they asked about the names.
“William Smith,” I said proudly. They smiled and kindly suggested I try another name in the tree that was a little more unique. What about William’s father—what was his name? Well, my grandfather was William Smith II, I offered—middle name Edwin?
I can still hear their laughter (a bit too loud for a library).
I also knew my grandpa’s birth date and place, so I eventually uncovered a corresponding birth record in an index: William E. Smith, born 1 May 1925 in New Haven, Connecticut, son of William Smith (bingo!) and Florence Smith (hello, great grandma!). From there I tracked William Smith, the elder, back a few generations, all the way to Thomas and Arabella Smith, immigrants from England. It was thrilling! And I’m not ashamed to say I was a little Anne Shirleyish in romanticizing their lives.
Later, when I got the chance to visit New Haven, I took the time to hire a professional genealogist (Nora Galvin, of AuntLizzie’sTrunk.com). We visited the vital records office to obtain official copies of birth, death, and marriage records. We pored through indexes and filing cabinets, obtaining dozens of records that I could now link up to my family history. I remember finding my grandfather’s birth certificate and examining the details in excited interest.
- Birth place: New Haven, Connecticut (ah, New Haven, you grand ol’ town!)
- Birth date: 1 May 1925 (mm, a very good year!)
- Name: William F. Smith—wait! what? F? It was E. I know it was E. William Edwin!
Maybe the official birth record had a typo. But if William typo-F was really my William E. Smith II, then why was his father’s middle initial written as G?
It turns out there was a very simple explanation: I had the wrong William Smith. The vital records index I first found had the typo; the certificate was correct. But could there really be two William Smiths, each born to a William Smith, and both on 1 May 1925 in New Haven, Connecticut?
Yep. Now I could hear the universe laughing.
A right turn.
With a bit more persistence, I found the right William Smith (the other William Smith): William Edwin Smith II (1925-1974), son of William Edwin Smith I (1897-1972), son of William Henry Smith (1875-1911), son of William Smith (1845-1919). According to the census, this last (well, first?) William emigrated from England to Maine sometime around 1872. So, to continue my family history research on the Smith line, all I have to do now is comb through the passenger manifests from dozens of ships arriving in Maine (or New York or Canada or somewhere nearby) carrying a poor, young English immigrant named William Smith.
I guess it wasn’t the universe laughing after all, it was just all those Williams.
A tree bearing fruit.
My “Short line” has turned into a long journey, but I still love the process—and I’m just getting started. In addition to the Williams, I also found spouses, siblings, and cousins, dozens of people with all kinds of stories from journals, newspapers, and other historical records. I’ve added more than 70 people to our family tree (not just Smiths) and properly documented them with hundreds of records. I learned tools of the genealogical trade, became a member of a few historical societies, and developed a skill set I’ve since used to help many others in their own family history quest. And I’m still absolutely fascinated by family history and what it can teach us about our larger History and about ourselves.
A few years ago I took my family on a vacation to New England. We drove from Boston to Maine where we could retrace the steps of all those Smiths, visit a few gravesites, and even spend an afternoon at a place called Five Islands, where some of the Williams (and other Smiths) liked to go boating and eat lobster. The sheer joy of sharing that day with my kids—a day full of family and fun and history and possibility—is nearly indescribable. In their words: cool, awesome, love it, better than another trip to Disneyland. (Okay, that last one is from a very supportive daughter, and she may have been exaggerating to make her dad happy; good girl!)
As we stood on that shore, enjoying the rocky beach and the waves and the winds (and the lobster), I felt it again. Only this time, I wouldn’t describe it as a pull; it was more of a binding, a gathering of past and present in a moment that made our family feel closer. It was magical and beautiful and perfect. It was the kind of day our family will talk about for years, the kind of memory some of us will capture in a journal or a blog. It’s the kind of story I hope that one of my daughters will gather and maybe keep in a digital shoebox to someday share with her children, or her nieces and nephews.