I’ve always loved the story of ‘Alice in Wonderland’. The tale is full of adventure and sometimes utter nonsense. Much like family research. Like Alice, I sometimes chase white rabbits, never knowing where they will lead me. And like Alice’s adventures, our research presents us many locked doors. All we have to do is find the right key.
Sometimes we choose the wrong door and head down a rabbit hole. This happened to me when I was researching my mother’s family.
When beginning your family research, you start with your most recent information and work your way backwards, generation by generation. Most people know enough about their parents and grandparents to get started. But if you are adopted or your parents are no longer living, the information you have may be limited. In my case, my mother died when I was very young and I was never told much about her side of the family. My paternal grandmother raised me and if I asked questions, I was told she never talked about them. By the time I became serious about discovering her family, my grandmother had died, taking any information she had with her to the grave.
Starting My Research
From my birth certificate I learned my mother’s maiden name was “Thompson” and she was 31 years old when I was born. That told me her year of birth. Her obituary told me that she lived most of her life in the same area of Los Angeles where I was raised and that she had three sisters and a brother. Being from California was a blessing in disguise because California birth and death indexes are available on-line for free. The California Birth Index provided me with her birth date and her mother’s maiden name. It wasn’t much, but enough to begin an earnest search in the 1930 census. Or so I thought.
When the 1930 census was released, I was elated because it was the first census listing my mother. I was certain finding her and her parents would be easy. What I did not take into consideration is the similarities in names, ages, and parentage between different family lines. It is common to find a person listed by different names on different documents. I knew my mother as “Rose”, but the California Birth Index listed her as “Lillian Rose”, so I allowed for the fact that at age four, my mother may have been called Rose, or Lillian or Lily.
Because her obituary said she lived most of her life in the town where I was raised, I focused my search in the area of surrounding my childhood home. I had no reason to believe my mother had lived in anywhere other than the Los Angeles area. I found several young girls named Lillian Rose or Rose Lillian and was able to narrow my search to two families: Lillian R. Thompson, and Rose L. Thompson. Both were the same age, both lived in the vicinity of my search.
Don’t let personal bias get in the way
I believe everyone has a personal bias that has to be overcome when researching our families. Whether it is the belief that we really are related to someone famous (even though there is no proof) or that the outlaw in the family could not really share our same DNA, a good researcher should never let their bias gloss over the facts. It never occurred to me that my mother may have been the daughter of a divorced British woman, even though the evidence in the census more closely matched what I knew to be true about my mother. Instead, I believed she must have grown up in a perfect “Clever Family” and chose “Lillian”, daughter of American born George and Rose Thompson. If my mother had been the daughter of an immigrant, surely I would have been told.
Down the Rabbit Hole
As an Ancestry.com member I have a wealth of information at my fingertips so I began looking for anyone who might have had Lillian Rose Thompson in their family tree. Through various inquires I was put in contact with ‘Steve’, the nephew of Lillian Rose. I have to admit that my excitement over making my first contact shaded my judgment for a while. Steve was very forthcoming with information, ready to share and to welcome me into the family. I was excited to finally find out who my mother’s people were.
It didn’t take much time, however, before I realized that this was a false lead. Steve’s information about Lillian did not fit with what I knew about Rose. For one thing, my mother died at age 32. Lillian, on the other hand, lived to a ripe old age and died in Oklahoma. There was also inconsistency concerning the death of Lillian’s parents. My maternal grandparents supposedly died in a car accident; Lillian’s parent both died in 1963, after my own mother’s death. (The car accident story is also false. Sometime deceptions prevail in a family history so nothing can be taken as truth unless it is proven). After a couple of weeks, I was back to square one.
The moral of this story is simple. Follow leads and see where they take you, but be prepared that you may have gone in the wrong direction. No matter how good something looks or how much you may want it, make sure all of the information fits in place. Yes, there will be setbacks and the occasional rabbit hole. But think of genealogy as an adventure in Wonderland – a marvelous place where mysteries wait to unfold. And enjoy the ride!
P.S. – I did find my mother’s family. That’s another story.
This is an edited version of a post originally published in November 2014.