35 Years of Digging
for Dead Ancestors
By Michael Collins Dunn, Ph.D.
This essay is a work in progress. Please consider it "under construction" for the moment, but enjoy what is here, and check back later for more.

    It is never entirely possible to revisit the past. Yet that is what a genealogist -- or, if you prefer, as I do, a family historian --  tries to do, and what I, in trying to explain how I was first sucked into the whirlpool of genealogy -- from which there is no escaping -- am trying to do here. I hope I can recapture a little of the story.

    I have called this "35 Years of Digging for Dead Ancestors" because I've been engaged in that strange form of archaeology called genealogy, looking for the clues left behind by people who, for the most part, never intended to leave any clues behind. And "35 years" is a modest claim since I have postmarks in my files from 1964, showing that I've been doing this for at least 36 years already, perhaps more. I suspect I actually began either in late 1963 or early 1964, but the date is unclear. More on that in a moment.

    I was trained as a historian, and taught history for a while at the university level, though I no longer do so on a regular basis. Those who wish to know more about my professional identity can find a great deal more on my web page. But it has always amazed me that some professional historians disdain genealogy as a hobby. I can't see the point: isn't the most intimate form of history, the history of oneself? Conversely, I know of no better way to appreciate American history, than to know how one's own ancestors fit within the tapestry of that history.

    At least until the computer revolution, it seems that most people came to genealogy late in life, especially men, who often began it as a retirement hobby. Women sometimes began earlier, but often were dismissed by the stereotype of the "DAR daughter" or the little old lady researcher. These stereotypes sprang in part from the fact that few people in the active workforce had time to spend on the painstaking research genealogy has always required. So the retired person, or the housewife with grown children, were the natural adherents of the hobby. Because the computer revolution has made much of the research and all of the organization much easier, more people are now entering the hobby; there was an earlier wave in the late 1970s, when the television version of Roots sent not only blacks but whites as well to the libraries.

    I, however, don't fit any of those patterns. I started genealogy in my teens. Because I was a baby boomer whose parents had married shortly before World War II, I was born when my father was 36 and my mother 35; as it happened, three of my four grandparents died long before I was born. I only knew one grandparent, my paternal grandmother, Effie Lorena Collins Dunn. When she died in 1962, when I was 14, I knew absolutely nothing about my ancestry. I was already a history buff, and a trip to Springfield, Illinois in the early 1960s had made me a Lincoln buff as well. Reading one book on Lincoln from the Joplin, Missouri public library, I learned that Lincoln knew nothing about his ancestors on his mother's side and little on his father's side beyond his grandparents. This struck me as odd, Lincoln being such a prominent man in retrospect, and then I realized I knew nothing about my own ancestors.

    That started me asking questions. Because my mother had two sisters living in the area, and another sister who had the family bible, I began with my mother's side. But they were Irish famine immigrants, and therefore there was only so much I could do without traveling to Ireland, especially back in the mid-1960s, when not only was there no World Wide Web, but there were few indexes to genealogical materials.

    My father's side was more troublesome. He knew less; but they were not recen timmigrants, so there was more which might be done in America. In my last year or two of high school -- say, from age 16 to 18 -- I made some trips with my parents to the area my father came from in Christian County, Missouri. Today, this is the area between Springfield and Branson, Missouri, the fastest growing part of the entire state due to the entertainment center Branson has become. In 1964-65 it was still a rural and small town region, and some distant relatives we were referred to still lived up dirt roads on remote hilltops, with snapping dogs and few visitors. I know now it was the end of a way of life, the last of the old hill folk in that particular area before the tourists and music came. I treasure the fact that I saw some aspects of Ozark hill life before it changed. It is too late today, at least in that part of Missouri.

    I went to college at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. That was fortutitous, for it gave me direct access to the National Archives, back before regional archives branches made microfilm records more readily available around the country. The Library of Congress and the DAR Library in Washington were also priceless, this at a time when the LDS Church's great microfilm collection was much smaller and harder to access. I learned a great deal.

    After college my genealogical researches waxed and waned. I was trained as a historian, which made me understand more fully how to research and document my findings, but I was a Middle East historian, so I spent much time in areas where I had not ancestral roots. In 1976-77 I taught for one year at Utah State University, another fortuitous occasion. As my father had just died, my mind was on family once more; and I was a relatively short drive from Salt Lake City and the Mormon Genealogical library, which, though I am not a Mormon, is a treasure for any genealogist. I didn't use it much, but I did get back into genealogy a bit. Then I moved overseas again, and drifted away, once again.

    I will continue to add to this story: please check back periodically. Thanks.