Genealogy is full of black holes.
I have several in my family tree so far, and they drive me crazy. They are the people I can’t figure out. Someone who doesn’t leave a paper trail. A dead end.
Twenty-some years ago when my grandfather and I were working together on our family tree, we found our first black hole. His grandmother, Lucinda Bennett, grew up in an orphanage in Knightstown, Indiana; her birth certificate didn’t list a mother or a father.
We hurried to Knightstown–not far from our home in Richmond–and searched for records, but we found that the orphanage’s records were destroyed in a fire many years ago. To this day I haven’t been able to uncover any information about Lucinda Bennett. I don’t know who her parents were or where she came from. A whole branch of my family tree extends from her back into history and for now lies in the dark.
I have many other black holes in my family tree: A great-great grandfather born to a single mother in 1860 in Kentucky, a great-great-great grandfather who came from Germany, another great-great-great grandfather I just can’t figure out.
Little bits of information float around the edges of these black holes–a record of birth, a census, a land purchase. But just like real black holes, the empty center sucks anything around it into its darkness and remains just as dark.
Black holes can only be observed through their interactions with other bodies in space. You can’t actually see a black hole, only the impact it has on other things. In genealogy, the same holds true. The dark place on my family tree where Lucinda Bennett goes is filled only with a name and a few bits of information. The deeper darkness where her parents are–and her ancestry–is completely unseen.
One of the reasons I press ahead in my pursuit of my family’s history is that I always hope some of these black holes can be transformed. One key piece of information can light up a whole segment of a family tree. Like a big play in football, one simple record buried in a courthouse somewhere can change the whole game.
These undiscovered records are the hidden treasure of genealogy. They’re what keep us going, what drive us to sit in libraries and dig through centuries-old books. They cause us to spend hour upon hour chasing down a lead. They taunt us.
The dark places of our family trees also push us toward each other. I’m an introvert who loves spending time in libraries, absorbed in the details of an all-out search for a missing ancestor; but I’ve learned that I can’t do it alone. It takes a posse of relatives, archivists, librarians, professional genealogists and people I meet online to pursue those elusive ancestors.
I’m thankful to so many people who have helped me along the way. I can’t wait to see what will be the next black hole in my family tree to burst into light and who will be there to help make it happen.