Giving the family tree a shake

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A day in the life of an intern

Sarah Puxley

Nothing excites me more than a dancing leaf. It holds promise of new knowledge and another link in the chain of history.

You see, my mom and I have accounts on Ancestry.com. Known as the largest for-profit genealogical site in the world, it’s got access to 11 billion records.

When the system finds a potential new record for one of the people in your tree, a little leaf appears in the corner by their name and begins to shake to get your attention.

We've been working on family trees for years, albeit mostly with traditional paper versions. Some of my earliest memories involve helping my mom and dad with one of their many binders, each one with a different surname listing generation after generation inside.

It’s much easier now. We can manage the records by clicking instead of writing everything out and lugging the heavy binders around from place to place. The new tech also lets you upload video recordings, of relatives who have since died for example, talking about their family memories.

My dad started researching genealogy at the request of his parents, who wanted a more complete idea of their family lines. My mom does it partially to expand the family medical history. She notes who died from what and when, and it helps to paint a better idea of illnesses we can expect - especially when some tend to skip generations.

I used to do it out of curiosity to see how many other Sarahs we had in the tree but now I do it for the stories. We’ve come across some incredible tales that illustrate just how lucky we are to have made it this far.

My sixth great-grandfather, Samuel Fisher, left Ulster, Ireland for the United States by boat when he was 16 along with his older brother William.

The ship ended up getting lost at sea along the way and they slowly ran out of provisions. Eventually the passengers and crew aboard turned to eating the dead to survive - and then they ran out of dead.

They drew straws to see who would be sacrificed so the others could live.

Samuel got the short straw.

By pure chance, just as they were dragging him away, they spotted another ship’s sails on the horizon. She answered their distress call and gave them food, water and directions.

They were less than a day’s sail from Boston.

As the legend goes, once Samuel stepped off that boat, his boots never touched shipboard again. I can hardly blame him.

Another close call happened in more recent history - the Halifax Explosion.

On that fateful day in 1917, my great-grandfather William Robertson Himelman was working in an office on the Dartmouth side of the harbour. Noticing his teacup was empty and fancying another, he walked into the side kitchen to fix himself a new cup.

At that moment, the Mont-Blanc’s ammunition stores exploded, levelling much of the city including the office my great-grandfather had just been standing in.

Figuring future descendants might be as rapt by these tales as we are, my mom and I make sure to add them to each ancestor’s profile so that other relatives can read them too.

Stories like these drive me to keep searching out my family history - because you never know what may be behind the next dancing leaf.

 

sarah.puxley@gmail.com

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  • Barbara Himelman
    April 17, 2013 - 11:53

    That was awesome Sarah. I really enjoyed reading it. That was two stories I was not aware of. Thanks for sharing. Keep up the good work