Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My First Family Association Conference

This past weekend I attended my first family association conference. A family society conference (or gathering or reunion) is a get-together of people that share the same surname. Sometimes they all come from the same individual immigrant ancestor, sometimes there are multiple ancestors and sometimes it's the surname that is important rather than a blood connection.

In this particular case, I was asked to speak at the Sisson Gathering, a conference for people who are interested in researching the Sisson surname.  The organizers make the distinction that is not a family reunion because anyone interested in researching Sissons is welcome whether they are related or not.

It just so happens that not only was I an invited speaker but I also happen to be a Sisson descendant (though admittedly with far fewer Sisson generations than most of the attendees). I was very keen to see how a family society conference operates and what the participants share and find important to discuss.

The American Sissons originated in Portsmouth, Rhode Island and nearby Dartmouth/Westport, Massachusetts in the mid 1600s. The Sisson gatherings are held every two years in places relevant to Sisson migration or where current Sissons live. This year's conference was held in Albany, New York.

Before the actual conference started there was a day or two of field trips to Sisson ancestral homelands and cemeteries in New York. The full conference got under way on Saturday and was a day chock full of presentations about Sissons.  The session started with a recap of a recent research trip to England to uncover the parentage of 17th century immigrant ancestor, Richard Sisson. There was a detailed discussion on DNA (there are 3 separate Y DNA groups with the Sisson name), a talk about a Sisson who participated in the Civil War,  a story of a serendipitous meeting of two Sissons during a graveyard visit and a recap of the previous days of field trips.

Dave Martin presenting at the Sisson Gathering
I was very touched by the story of one man who talked about meeting his Sisson family for the first time after his parents' bitter divorce during his childhood had kept him from knowing them.  It shows that this kind of gathering can be meaningful both in the here and now as well as for connecting with our ancestors.

My talk, while Sisson focused, was more history related and discussed the westward migration of Sissons out of New England and into New York.

One of the things I found really neat was that there were three Sissons participating from outside the United States. Two were from England and one from Canada. I love to meet people from different countries so it was a special treat for me. But I found it interesting that they valued this type of event enough that they would be willing to make the trip.

During the conference I also had the chance to spend time with Joan and David Sisson who wrote the book on the Sissons.  It's not often that you use a genealogy surname book and actually get to meet the authors.  I also got to meet my closest related Sisson cousin (at the conference anyway) who descends from the brother of my most recent Sisson ancestor, Phebe Sisson. If only I had thought to get a picture of the two of us together.

All in all it was a great experience. I didn't feel too out of place even though I only have 5 generations of Sissons compared to 9 or 10 like most of the attendees.  I got to meet loads of great people from around the country and the world. And I got a glimpse of  how a different side of the genealogical world operates. I'm very glad that they've decided to hold the next conference in nearby Providence, Rhode Island because that means I'll be able to attend again.

If you'd like to find out whether your surname has an established family association you can check this online directory. It is not comprehensive though because the Sissons were not listed there.  You may have better luck just googling your surname and "family association."

Let me know if you've ever attended a family association conference or gathering. I'm curious to hear what your experience was like.


  1. Great post, Marian! I attended a much less formal, more reunion-ish Buchanan family get-together in NC some years back and had the same sort of experience of someone saying she felt like she was meeting her family for the first time. Her Dad -- the Buchanan -- had been killed when she was a baby. Very emotional moment.

  2. Very useful post. I do believe this is the kind of conference that may grow. I'd be interested in hearing the thoughts of others. Thanks, so much for this useful information on what is going on out there in this area! ;-)

  3. I've attended some of the MUNRO clan meetings, and I'm a member of the WYMAN and FELTON associations (The Wymans have been meeting for over 100 years and have maintained the Francis Wyman homestead built in 1666) which have annual summer meetings. They include socializing, business meetings, and usually food. I consider my Mayflower meetings family associations, since so many of us are inter-related by marriage, too, and most of the Mayflower passengers also have individual surname associations. The best part of these associations is that they usually maintain good genealogical records, have DNA projects, preserve archives and material possessions, and ocassionally (like WYMAN, FELTON, FAIRBANKS, WHIPPLE, BALCH, and EMERSON) maintain or meet at the ancestral homesteads.

  4. Since another of my favorite bloggers is a Sisson (marksdailyapple.com), I passed your posts on the gathering along. :-)