July 21, 2013

The Entryman

From time to time a kind of fever strikes, just comes and goes like a case of chronic malaria. It’s the genealogy bug and I am recovering from the most recent attack, the first in three or four years.

Maybe five years. In any case, some surprising things have happened in a very short time. Everyone, it seems, is researching their ancestors and there are now hundreds of message boards with thousands of messages. And these searchers are not amateurs.  They take this stuff very seriously apparently, figuring out not just who and where and when, but why.  And the part the neighbors played.


My grandfather, grandson of an entryman.

You can tell the newbies – they post messages like ‘Does anyone know where I would  find my great-grandparents marriage records from 1876?  I think they were married in Wyoming.’

And bingo, within the hour there are a dozen responses with links – to page numbers, no less – and inevitably the last reply says “Here they are: (link).’

For some people it apparently gets a little intense and I can certainly see how that happens.  Genealogy is not only about the greatest mystery ever – where do I come from? – but it is also a Great Escape.  Before you know it, you’ve lost three hours of your life looking at 19th century gravestones in Kansas and happily are too sleepy to watch the news.

It is, btw, a great way to teach American history – the National Road, Zane’s Trace, the great migration from 1800-1820, bounty land and entrymen were all new to me. When history is personal, it’s unforgettable.

The other great breakthrough is the digitization of government records. Not only have  state governments  made enormous strides, but the tiniest town in America probably has a volunteer busily transcribing all the church registers for the last two hundred years even as we speak.

Jolly flatboatmen in port by George Caleb Bingham.

Jolly flatboatmen in port by George Caleb Bingham.

In fact, it was during a careful reading of colonial court records from the Maryland state archives that my current fever broke. I suddenly realized I don’t really care which of the many Nathaniels two centuries ago is the progenitor of my immediate family and given the number of court house and city hall fires in the intervening decades, chances of finding out are slim.

What I understood finally was that my family was just like every family that settled this – and every other – country.  They struggled to provide for themselves and their children, lived short, hard lives and tried to do right by everyone in their wills.  Nobody discovered penicillin, climbed Everest or wrote a symphony.

They did fight in all this country’s wars and didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the government’s offer of bounty land as payment. That was the high point of my own family search – I found the entrymen, the brave souls who were the first to homestead public lands on offer. (‘Public lands’ is of course a dubious term, but that’s another blog.)

Traveling hundreds of miles – by water if you were lucky, but over muddy paths through forests for the most part – to a new and unknown country struck me as accomplishment enough. It wasn’t about Manifest Destiny, it was about feeding the kids.



  1. Fascinating! Truly the best way to learn History. Very strong and original too.


    Comment by galyatarmu — July 21, 2013 @ 7:07 pm | Reply

  2. I inherited many old letters and we are working on a family tree. I was struck by how the country’s wars affected the generations, one after another, over and over.


    Comment by Celia Carroll — July 21, 2013 @ 8:33 pm | Reply

  3. Might try it one day. Good to have you back blogging away.. c.


    Comment by Carol — July 22, 2013 @ 9:15 am | Reply

  4. Awesome! i love it 🙂


    Comment by ninachat — July 22, 2013 @ 6:04 pm | Reply

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