I have a pretty odd last name. Everyone spells it wrong, and I get it. Especially when there’s a bunch of famous McGraws to contend with – Tim, Tug, Phil.
Growing up, I always heard that us Magraws owed the strange spelling of our name to some ancient Catholic-Protestant feud in our family. Then I learned that wasn’t true at my grandmother’s funeral in 2001, when I met Daniel McGraw, a direct relation of mine, and a monsignor in the Catholic Church. This was a clue I tucked away.
I still don't know the answer.
My father’s father, Chet, died less than a month before I was born, and my father, Timothy Ian Magraw (yes, his initials spell his name, and no, he is not married to Faith Hill) is an only child who – though keen to hear about what I find out in my research – has little interest in pursuing his roots.
I was fortunate enough to have a genealogy nut on my mom’s side, Great-Aunt Helen, who just recently passed away. She left a trove of information about the Cline side of my family -- people who came from the Rhineland to help settle the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia long before the American Revolution. I also knew a lot about my maternal grandmother’s paternal lineage, the Trews, who emigrated from England to Chestertown, on Maryland’s eastern shore, not long after the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock.
This side of my family was easy to find, because they stuck around to farm the fertile land in Kent County up until a few generations ago, when my great-grandfather, James Wilkins Trew, moved his wife and two daughters to Baltimore and then to Gettysburg, Pa., where I was eventually born.
Like many families, mine has a tradition of recycling surnames that ended when no boys were born to carry it on. I am proud to have Trew as part of my name and plan to carry on the tradition myself if I have children.But then there are the dark, unexplored corners of my past, the Magraws included. It’s not something that I think about every day, but it’s something I come back to.
Great-Aunt Helen died a few years ago, so I think I have felt a heightened sense of obligation to assemble the other branches of my family tree. It’s also my way of honoring her life and her contribution to mine.
Ancestry.com has gone guns blazing with their TV commercials lately, and when I saw that they were running a free two-week trial offer, I thought, “Well, why the hell not?” Even though it’s the kind of free trial that automatically “renews” your membership without letting you know, I joined anyway – even knowing full well that I wouldn’t cancel before the pay-schedule kicked in. And I haven’t. My plan costs about $35 a month and I’m signed up through June.
I’ll admit it. I’m hooked. Shaking the leaves has sucked me in. But there comes a time when the leaves run cold.
It happened to me with my father’s mother’s side of the family – the Blairs. I got stuck at my grandmother’s father, Ferdinand Blair. After a little research, I found out from the U.S. Census that Ferdinand went by Fred – and when I manually made that change to his record in my tree, a little green leaf appeared. Eventually, I learned that the Blairs once lived on the South Side of Chicago – a place where I thought I had no ties when I moved here to attend graduate school this past fall.
As I talked with Lou Szucs and Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak (yes, she married another Smolenyak – of no relation), two highly respected genealogists, it became clear that what drew them to genealogy is what drew me to journalism. We’re all truth-seekers. We all want to know the why and the how. As Lou put it, “it’s a little detective work.”
And the quest to find our roots can be the most personal – and high-stakes – of all our truth-seeking ventures.
“They weren’t all perfect, but these are our people,” Lou said. “We like to know more than names and dates. We want to know something about the personality, how they fit into history -- and we know how we fit into history because of who they were.” Lou is not only a kindred spirit, she’s one of the leading experts on tracing genealogical roots in Chicagoland.
Genealogy does something else. It captures our imagination and takes us to another place in time. Megan said: “This is what I lose track of time doing.”
“It’s therapeutic for some people,” Lou said. “When you look at the news and think about what’s going on in your life that’s out of your control, here’s a piece that you can work with that’s your own.” I’ve certainly lost track of time, adrift in a seemingly endless chain of names. But each minute spent researching helps flesh out a face to go with those names.
I’ve found out some really interesting things so far. It turns out I’m related to Cary Travers Grayson, physician to Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson. And there’s a good chance I’m a direct descendant of Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace’s kid brother, John.
I still have a lot of work to do. As President Reagan famously said, and as many of my journalism professors have repeated: trust but verify.
But, Lou cautioned, be careful not to overdo it. She said a lot of “genies” (what many genealogists affectionately call themselves) put too much emphasis on precision and rob themselves of the joy of discovery.
“It’s like speeding down the highway and getting to where you want to go, but not enjoying anything along the way,” she said. Take the time to “enjoy it." "Jump in and see what wonderful things you can find.”
As Lou observed, “every record has a little set of clues that, if you analyze them closely, will lead you down the path to another set.” I still don’t know when the McGraws changed their name – or why. But I’ll keep digging.
I think I’d like to go further. Megan was one of the first proponents of genetic genealogy and, though I was skeptical at first. I’m beginning to see DNA as Megan sees it: as a valuable tool in any good genie’s toolbox.
“Sometimes DNA can answer questions that a paper trail never is going to answer. And sometimes it just gets you to the finish line faster,” she said.
The next time I see him, I’m going to ask my dad to swab his cheek for Y-DNA testing so I can get started. If he’s worried about the privacy implications, I’ll just tell him what Megan told me: “If somebody wants to play with your DNA, the easiest thing to do is take your Coke can. That way is easier than trying to hack into databases and get your number attached to your sample and all that stuff.”
I think I’m okay with that. I hope he’ll be okay with that, too. If not, he'd better keep an eye on his Coke cans.
- blog by Leslie Trew Magraw, graduate student reporter, Medill School of Journalism