Monday, March 7, 2011

Why do people have favorite ancestors?

I just got off the phone after interviewing Elissa Scalise Powell about her upcoming appearance at NERGC (you can see that in a few days on the NERGC blog).  While we were talking about genealogy we took a philosophical detour down the ancestral road.

One of the things we discussed was "Why do people have favorite ancestors?"  How is it that people start researching the many ancestors they have and somewhere along the way they develop favorites?  Basically you're selecting favorites among people you've never met.

Elissa mentioned that the ancestors who were the most puzzling often became her favorites.  Also, the ones with good stories.  Elissa has some really fascinating ancestors with interesting stories to tell.

I'll give you an example of one of my favorite ancestors.  His name is David Turner Shaw and he lived from 1764-1856, dying in Bath, Maine. There are two things that make him one of my favorites.  First, he was town clerk of Bath, Maine for over forty years.  I just thought that was cool.  Second, when he died in 1856, his wife of 63 years died exactly 7 days after him.  I like to think that they had quite a pleasant marriage. In addition to having the start of a good story I felt connected to him because of these details.

So I want to ask you folks - Why do you have favorite ancestors?  How did you select them?


As a complete aside,  this conversation I had with Elissa demonstrates exactly why you should get involved with the genealogical community.  As a volunteer for the New England Regional Genealogical Conference I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with this amazing genealogist.  Imagine being able to interact with genealogists who are helping to guide the next generation!  By getting involved with local, or even national, genealogical organizations these kinds of opportunities appear.  Not only did I have a fascinating conversation with Elissa on the phone but I'm really looking forward to seeing her at NERGC in April so I can continue the conversation.


  1. If I had to pick a favorite ancestor it would be my Aunt Grace. I first got whim of her when I saw genealogy my grandmother wrote out. When I asked my Aunt Carrie about a fourth child she said, "No there wasn't another child, I think my Mother began to write her name there, and then decided to write it above."

    My mom said, "There was rumor of another child but no one talked about it because it was so hard on your grandmother."

    Another aunt said, "I have never heard of such thing and I think you should leave it alone."

    In 2001 I asked the oldest of the cousins who told me, "Yes there was a fourth child and it was a girl. It was raining and our grandmother was getting off the bus when her coat got caught in the door and she fell with the baby."

    I never thought I would ever be able to prove this story and Baby Grace would always be family-lore. When I searched for a death record for my grandmother, two Grace Linn Moore's popped up. One for my Grandmother and one for Baby Grace. The death certificate said she died of "slippery conditions and john dice (jaundce)" I had proof she did indeed exist and died at 12 days old.

    My grandparents lived in Taylor, Texas at the time (out side of Austin) and went to Corpus for Thanksgiving to introduce the new baby. Evidentally the accident happened before much of the family knew about the baby.

    I wanted to bring her life full circle and went in search of her grave. I learned there was no gravestone. Baby Grace had pretty much been forgotten. One day I will have the money for a headstone for her grave.

    I grew to have a love for a little girl I never knew and most of my family did not even know existed. No matter who the ancestor is, I believe it is our responsibility to share their story. Sometimes that may mean our characters in our closets, and sometimes it could be a sweet Baby Grace.

  2. LauraLeigh, what an amazing story. I'm so glad you didn't give up in your search. Thanks for sharing that!

  3. My favorite ancestors are the ones that I discovered early on - through my own digging and not from already existing research - and for whom I have done a lot of original research: the Moores and Lewises of SC and Texas. At first I thought they were plain old farming families, but I didn't mind and loved them anyway. But as I have learned more, several extraordinary stories have come to light. It's as though they are rewarding my love of and interest in them. That's why one of the pieces of advice I would give to new researchers is: "If you think your ancestors are boring, just keep researching. They'll get interesting."

  4. LauraLeigh, that is a fascinating story! I have 2 favorite ancestors, both women. I don't know why they are my favorites; I'm just drawn to them. There is nothing special about either one.

  5. Great post, Marian. One of my favorites is very elusive. She had children with 3 different men and was married to at least 4. She's "findable" yet elusive all at the same time. I'm sure she has a great story to tell if I can just get it all pieced together. I think I love the more elusive ancestors but also the ones that I have great family stories for. I never really thought about this until your blog. I've enjoyed it.

  6. I try not to "play favorites" but there are several ancestors who hold a special place in my heart. They seem to be the ones I have either learned the most about or have had to dig the hardest to find.

    I'm awarding you the One Beautiful Blog Award. The post won't go up on my blog till later tomorrow afternoon. Come then and get the image and learn more about it at

  7. I spent a year researching my MotherInLaw's family. I could not find her GrGrandfather and it was a brick wall I wouldn't let go of till I solved the puzzle.. One day my MotherInLaw took me to the town she & these ancestors lived in-Americus,GA. I live almost an hour from there. This is cotton growing country down here, and like most farming families, there is a fenced in family cemetery in the middle of nowhere. I took pics, and I literally got teary-eyed. I knew these people so well. There were graves I could not read but I knew who was buried there. And these were not even "blood" relatives! They weren't even my family. So that was a case where I felt a connection to a family that I spent a long time getting to know. Maybe that's one answer-some people "get to know" their family as they research them (like myself) so much that, like any family, we tend to have a favorite Aunt or Cousin-only they're 3rd or 5th Cousins/Aunts.

  8. My favorite ancestors to research are actually my husband's 3rd great grandparents, Jeremiah and Mary Llewellyn Zorns Moore. This couple is my favorite because at every turn it is a lesson in sound genealogical practices.

    They came out to Oregon in 1865, Jeremiah was 86 and Mary was 81. Yes, they made the trip by wagon! I can only imagine what the overland journey was like for them. They lived out their lives on their son, Philip Moore’s homestead, which is right on the Barlow Road in Clackamas County, Oregon. According to a biography of son, Hiram, who didn’t migrate west, Jeremiah died at the age of 99 and according to other writings, Mary is reported to have died at approximately 94 years of age.

    About seven years ago I found three news articles about Uncle Philip’s death in 1895. One of the articles mentions that he was laid to rest next to his parents! This one sentence gave me hope that I could find the final resting place for Philip and his parents. After following the paper trail for all of them and reading many diaries and historical accounts of pioneers traveling over the Barlow Road, with very few clues, I was about to give up! Then one day I found a book that led me on a path I would never have thought to travel…old road surveys. In the book I found reference to old road surveys done on the Barlow Road, so I went to the Department of Transportation in Clackamas County, Oregon to see if I could view the surveys. This trip turned out to be one of the most serendipitous genealogical moments in my life! After reviewing the two road surveys mentioned in the book and finding the signatures of Uncle Philip and Uncle John on a petition to change the course of the Barlow Road, the deputy surveyor asked me a few questions and then his face lit up! He said he remembered something he ran across recently on a later survey. He went to his computer and brought up a 1903 survey and in the surveyor’s notes there was mention of Philip’s grave next to a quarter section marker, on the homestead! I have since found an eye witness who lived on this land as a child (before WWII) and she remembers a small private cemetery in the same location. She also recalls that a few years after they moved the new land owner hired someone to till the pasture and he tilled right over the cemetery. The graves have been unmarked since that time. Now the goal is to get permission to remark their final resting place.

  9. I wrote about my 'favourite' ancestor on my blog recently ( In that post I outlined a little about why she was my favourite. For me, it all started when I was very young with her name - Dionysia Ansted. I found it very exotic. But there's also something more intangible there. I feel I have "known" her all my life, despite the fact she died a good 75 years before I was born. The more I have found out about her the more I have grown to feel a connection. There are other ancestors that I feel a pull towards, but not in the same way.

  10. Sometimes it's as simple as why we like certain living people more than others - they are just more interesting. I think my favorites tend to be the ones I know the most about, especially the ones who endured extreme hardships.

  11. As an archivist, I have favorite non-relatives from the collections I've processed. The people I identify with in my family tree have the same qualities as my archives favorites. The characters I like in books do to. I tend to identify with strong female characters who must overcome a hardship or work to make the world a better place.

    One of my favorite non-relatives is a woman named Ida Annah Ryan from the special collections of the Waltham Public Library in Massachusetts. Ida was born in 1873. She was the first woman to receive an MS from MIT, became a renowned architect, and was an active suffragette. I knew Annah great nephew, who donated his collection that included references to his Aunt among them. A professional friendship I formed with the donor made Ida seem even closer to me.

    In my personal life, the grandmother whom I never met is a favorite. She escaped from Poland during WWII and family legend says she dressed as a German peasant woman to sneak food and medicine into concentration camps...Both these women showed courage that I aspire to have. Today is International Women's Day and it reminds me that these "historical" persons and many like them have helped show me a path for my own life. "Playing favorites" is looking back into history to find people who move, astound, and inspire us.

  12. WOW! I never thought of having a favorite ancestor until I thought about it & realized I could recite the person's entire history! Thus far there are no links between those I favor outside the simple fact that I have pieced together their life from more, much more, than just vital records & censuses :)

  13. My favorites tend to be the ones who reach out to me. Some people just want to be found, and I appreciate those.

    Pictures are another biggie. Sometimes you just like their face.

    Interestingly, my favorites aren't necessarily ones I'm closely related to.

  14. I am more than partial to my husband's Meredith kin. Having found a collection of 18th c. letters they wrote I feel I know them as well, if not better, than many of my own relatives. They have been a joy to research.

  15. Marian:

    This is a superb post. I love it when genealogy bloggers give fascinating writing prompts to their readers.

  16. Hey Marian,

    My favorite ancestor is Caesar Toney who built a home in Upton, MA in 1756 that still stands. My next favorites are all my African American ancestors from Vermont - mostly because I am amazed that I had so many all from different lines and because most people don't know that ancestors such as mine ever lived and thrived in Vermont.

  17. for me, my favorite ancestors have to have a good story --- and when I go a'lookin' they all have a good story to tell, just some are hidden better than others.

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