As we’ve just celebrated Thanksgiving, I have spent the majority of my downtime eating or working on genealogy. And this is in spite of the fact I live in Columbus, Ohio where a hotly held football rivalry is held annually (good job this year, Michigan <snicker>) and that everyone else is out shopping. It is times like these, when I can let go of the housework and put aside other distractions, that I can make some real connections and really absorb what the overwhelming amount of data that is collected means.

This weekend, I’ve come to appreciate the results from researching collateral relatives–those that are not linearly related to us such as grandparents and great-grandparents–and truly understand the value of those aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws can bring. In my family, that means much work and effort–my mother’s side of the family probably could populate a mid-sized city. But it was through the Plenzler and Przybylski families that I came to understand more fully my great-grandparents’ lives. Eva Dauer and Joseph Plenzer as well as Frances Rochowiak and Andrew Przybylski were relatively obscure to me until I started putting the dots together with their children. For instance, I never would have fully understood that Andrew had been a naturalized citizen of the United States unless I had pursued all of his children’s births nor would I have even been able to pinpoint a time frame for his immigration without knowing his children’s births. It was his daughter Rose who was the last child to have been born in Poznan in June 1880 and his daughter Victoria who was born in Toledo in December 1882. My mom would not have known her Aunt Rose as Rose passed away in 1916. Mom did have a vague memory of Victoria — mom was born in 1926 and Victoria died in 1936 — mom would not have recalled much other than her relationship to Victoria.

Because of Rose’s and Victoria’s birth, I was able to pinpoint that their father would have come to the US sometime in 1880 and without this knowledge, I would not have been able to locate any other documentation for Andrew for his brief life in the US. I was thrilled to realize that he would have been able to vote in the US before his death.

Through my grandmother, Anastasia Przybylski Plenzler, I learned of cholera and typhoid outbreaks in urban regions of the US during the early 1900s. It was her first husband, Stanley Lawecki, who died of typhoid in 1910 and her first child, Daniel, who died of cholera a few months later.

There is great value in researching those collateral family members. Don’t stick to a linear branch of your family tree, especially if you are stuck. Dig into those children, nieces, nephews, aunts, grand uncles, and in-laws. You can find valuable information and understand your common grandparents or great-grandparents so much more if you do. My thinking is that the value of genealogy is not the pedigree you are building–if we all dig far enough or hard enough or long enough, we’ll probably find someone at least semi-famous or of some nobility. What does that really mean if you do not understand the full history behind what occurred in your family and bought you to where you are now and made you who you are?

I may be in a minority: I still haven’t located anyone remotely famous or even remotely connected to nobility or royalty in my family tree. When I hear someone claim they’re related to Robert E. Lee or have a story of a connection to the Windsors, I listen politely and move on and wonder if he or she has missed the richness of the history that surrounds them and fully understands the sacrifice, love, and labor that brought them to where they are now. I don’t dismiss anyone’s research, and a connection to Robert E. Lee is certainly an important and interesting connection to history. But I urge anyone to avoid becoming entrapped in attempting to prove or finding a “proper” or “important” pedigree via proxy. That eagerness may cloud your judgement–if you are indeed something like a fifth or sixth cousin to Robert E. Lee, look deeper. How did that influence your family’s role in history and how has that help mold who you are today? Do not live vicariously through the shadows of long-gone ancestors–you’re missing the richness of who you are and what your family gave you.

Rather, dig deeper and learn your family’s role in history and how it created who you are and how you came to be! Your parents may have been paupers, but there was not a linear chain of events that brought them to their station in life, but rather a three-dimensional web that created the world in which they both struggled and flourished as well. Learn that story!