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Genealogy in America.

By Drew Moore.

FIVE YEARS AGO, I embarked on a quest to uncover the origin of my father’s people. In the very first week, I struck genealogical gold. I discovered that Chaucer was my twentieth grandfather. Not my uncle, not my cousin, but my grandfather. Geoffrey Chaucer—the Father of English Literature, the great popular poet of Middle English—directly linked to me in a chain of fathers, mothers, sons and daughters spanning six hundred years! Learning that King Arthur was my ancestor could not have pleased me more than discovering that I had descended from the man who authored The Canterbury Tales. What writer would not be thrilled to claim such an exalted heritage?

Geoffrey, with clerical robe.

So the first thing I did was read an overview of Chaucer’s life and work. After all, I hadn’t read him since high school. The salient facts of his career suddenly gave my own rambling life significance, simply because my life’s twisted trajectory had a successful model in Grandpa Geoffrey. He was a civil servant; I was a census enumerator. He worked for the English army; I worked for the American army. He worked for the King; I—well, I worked for a Wall Street broker. He was a diplomat; I, umm, I spent a whole night investigating and toying with the idea of working for the State Department. He was a prolific poet who eschewed the stodginess of literary Latin and French for the vitality of vernacular English; I wrote too, but mostly prose, and well, not very prolifically, but I was once a Latin scholar who now preferred reading and writing in English. He came from a family of wine merchants; I came from a family of preachers and farmers . . . okay, reload.

Maybe Plutarch would not have paired us together in his Parallel Lives, but that did not diminish the enlarged sense of importance that my newfound lineage had given me. My biological connection to Chaucer instantly altered my self-image. I felt special. I felt different from the rest (never mind that Chaucer had thousands of other descendants). Previously, I thought I knew what pride felt like. I had been proud of my humble roots as we Americans are trained to be. My ancestors may have been hillbillies, but they tilled the earth like Cincinnatus, they were carpenters like Jesus, and a very few of them even managed a modest education to become teachers and preachers. But I didn’t really know pride until now. Now, I finally felt what it was like to be among the élite. Elevation above others dispensed the sweetest, most sustainable high I’d ever known. I felt a kinship with the Fords and the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers. Hell, they were elites for only the past few generations–they were new elites. I was old elite. My people had simply had a rough patch in the last century or two, begetting a few “horse thieves and drunks,” as my father used to call them in an affectionate tone that only a safe distance allows. But greatness was in my blood and would doubtlessly reassert itself.

IT MAY SEEM WHOLLY unreasonable, but this newly acquired knowledge even transformed my demeanor and behavior. When I struck keys on a computer keyboard, the strokes of my fingers assumed a deliberateness and purpose that they had never before possessed. When I spoke to customer service reps on the phone, I could detect in my own voice a certain confidence, even, shall I say it—condescension—that I had never known. I didn’t lament the loss of common Drew, humble Drew, nice-guy Drew, Drew of the people. Suddenly I found myself the adherent of a new faith, the faith of genealogy. As followers of faiths tend to be, I was a believer because I liked what my faith conferred upon me. I was one of the elect. American philosopher William James incisively wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “The gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use, the gods whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands on ourselves and one another.” My new god, Almighty DNA, affirmed my predestined greatness. Words that I had dismissed, such as “fate” and “destiny” and “purpose,” renewed themselves in my new belief in the supremacy of genetic transmission.

The fact that physical and behavioral traits are heritable through genes is absolutely enchanting. My ancestor who lived near the Black Sea some 10,000 years ago had a gene mutation, giving him or her the world’s first blue eyes. That individual passed those blue eyes down to me, and to everyone else who has blue eyes. By analogy, I reasoned, it was wholly conceivable that Chaucer’s creative gene—or package of genes—could have traveled the span of twenty generations, no doubt skipping most of them, to land in my DNA strand. This atavistic coup would soon rescue me from literary obscurity. Even if twenty generations had so weakened my genetic link to Chaucer that I had no legitimate claim to his creative genius, the mere knowledge of our kinship would drive me to fulfill the promise of greatness.

SUCH A DISCOVERY IN the first week of my ancestral research had remapped my life and given me a new sense of identity. So imagine the disillusionment I felt when I discovered days later that Geoffrey Chaucer was not my ancestor. Like many neophyte genealogists, I had made the mistake of believing what I read. was the gateway to my research, and when it proffered a link on my homepage that would take me to a list of my famous relatives, I clicked on it, and Chaucer was the shining star of my ancestral line. There were other famous relatives on this page such as Lucille Ball and a couple of minor American presidents, but they were distant cousins.

What I quickly discovered was that is only as reliable as the research of its members. Most members build their family trees by linking to existing family trees on the website. A green leaf next to an ancestor on one’s tree means that someone else has information on that ancestor, and possibly even on generations of previous ancestors. Think of it as’s version of copy-and-paste. Researching twenty generations oneself would take hundreds, if not thousands, of hours, and would require schlepping to libraries, historical societies, cemeteries and courthouses all over the hemisphere—this all assumes that the paper trail of evidence does not vanish by, say, the fourth, ninth or fourteenth generation. So piggybacking off of someone else’s research is a wonderful alternative, provided that his research is accurate. Unfortunately, it’s often inaccurate. In fact, the “research” is often an accretion of guesswork, patchwork and pure fantasy. When I finally examined the branch of my Chaucer line for documentation, I noticed that one of my grandmothers from the 1600s was actually listed as having been born fifty years before her mother! And that was only one of several impossibilities and improbabilities. Under the guidance of a cousin whom I soon met online—an exacting researcher with twenty years of experience—I finally began to lift the veil between me and my paternal lineage.

Earl (left), with bottle.

In the large, what I discovered was that my father’s people were exemplary of innumerable American families. Most likely emigrants from the British Isles, they farmed tobacco, owned a couple of slaves, and raised herds of livestock and kids in colonial Maryland. After the Revolution, they trekked across the Alleghenies to start a new life on the wilder, less-populous lands of western Virginia (now West Virginia), marrying into German, English, and Scots-Irish families, and piecing together a modest estate of two thousand acres—briefly—before losing it in the late 1800s. Big families minced the inherited farmland into tiny parcels; big business left them without a viable occupation; and when the family’s gamble on oil didn’t pay out, the dispossessed became laborers in mills and mines. That was the plight of my dad’s father, Earl, an erratic steel mill laborer, before he abandoned his wife and three small sons to start a new life in Baltimore. The next time my father saw him was in a casket, thirty years later.

THROUGHOUT MY GENEALOGICAL QUEST, I have often asked myself, “Why do I do this?” One friend admonished me, “Leave the dead alone.” And I must admit, sometimes, even I find it puzzling that people like me wish to devote countless hours of their lives scraping up the desiccated remains of their forebears, the dry facts of their existence, expecting to form a picture of who they were. Imagine your granddaughter or nephew of the twenty-second century smugly defining the sum of your existence on a tree chart with nothing more than your vital statistics. Your thousands of digital and paper photos have been lost or destroyed or are simply irretrievable, along with your emails and letters and diaries and home movies. All that remains of your life are your certificates of birth, marriage and death. Luckily the government still has census records that reveal where you lived every ten years and who lived with you, and perhaps your descendant finds a record of real estate that you owned and a legal dispute that you had. How well would these documents characterize you? They would hardly form a skeleton of your existence. I am continually frustrated by my inability to “know” my ancestors. What kind of voice did they have? Was it deep, soft-spoken? Were they a nag, an optimist, a hustler? What did they fantasize about? What did they have to say about God? What secrets and fears did they harbor? I keep returning to my research, hoping to turn up evidence that helps me answer these questions.

Maybe, too, I hope to find some physical or behavioral link between them and my family, some concrete explanation of why we are the way we are. I wonder why that is . . . because of the need for family, for community—however distant—or because of the comfort and security that I find in continuity? My great-great-great-uncle had red hair? That must be where my sister and her son get their red hair. And where Lucille Ball got her red hair (oh, wait–she used henna). What? My third cousin three times removed was a teacher? We must have derived our inclination to teach from the same grandparent. Why do I need to make such connections? Is it to validate the path of my life, to excuse the failure of my dreams, to legitimize my place in life, to reinforce the vision of myself, or to develop a new, grander vision of myself? The latter is certainly what I achieved for the few days that I thought Chaucer was my grandfather.

Genealogists devote hundreds and thousands of hours on what turns out to be a lifelong project—infinite in scope—that oftentimes yields little in tangible results. I may never find out exactly how my Moores ended up in America, where they lived previously, where they disembarked. The records simply may not exist. And whether tangible or intangible, the results do not lend themselves to being easily shared with others (although video is changing that, as family-history movies proliferate). One friend of mine, a proud Mayflower Society member, told me that one Christmas his father gave the family a thick, three-ring binder containing the accumulated documents of his years of ancestral research. The family has scarcely glanced at it. Genealogists can’t expect validation and confirmation from other people, so they have to derive gratification from the journey itself.

FOR ME, PART OF that gratification comes from seeing the events of my ancestors’ lives merge with the events of American history, turning history into a procession through the quotidian existence of my West Virginia hill people, making the broader story more palpable. Occasionally I learn of an event that lifts my ancestors’ lives out of the quotidian, whether triumphant or tragic. Take my fourth grandfather, Richard “Dicky” Moore. Dicky was born during the American Revolution and died during the Civil War. On 30 April 1864, Dicky Moore was “burnt to death.”

Those words sent a shiver up my spine the first time I spotted them in his death record. The grisly word choice conjured up a violent image, such as his being burned at the stake as a heretic. According to his estate records, he must have perished in a house fire because the only items that remained of his personal estate were an old horse, a wagon and gearing. I could find no hard evidence of how and why he was burnt to death. Maybe he was caught in the crossfire between rebel and union forces. I turned to history books to find accounts of Civil War skirmishes in the vicinity of Fairmont or Clarksburg, West Virginia, in April 1864. And would you believe it—I learned about the Jones-Imboden Confederate campaign to disrupt railroad and telegraph lines. In Jones’ Raid, six thousand troops consisting of cavalry, infantry and sharp shooters stormed through the region, destroying bridges, setting fires and appropriating thousands of horses and livestock. The main column passed within five miles of Dicky’s house on April 30 . . . 1863 . Damn! Exactly one year to the day before Dicky’s house went up in flames in 1864. How naïve of me to expect to find a link to a major historical event so easily and quickly. Since the history books weren’t helping, I turned to contemporary newspapers to learn if he had been the victim of any looting or bushwhacking expeditions that so terrorized the population and pitted neighbor against neighbor. Even though West Virginia had just seceded from Confederate Virginia to join the Union, tensions between the union and rebel factions were perhaps higher than in any other state. Rural farmers and backwoods homesteaders were especially vulnerable to guerrilla attacks. Gangs of men in plain clothes stalked and ambushed their prey, blurring the line between military and criminal activity. I didn’t find any mention of Dicky in the newspapers, but I did uncover in one newspaper – the Wheeling Intelligencer –the dreadful fate, in December 1864, of my first cousin five times removed, a staunch unionist named Henry Swiger, who lived a few miles away from Dicky:

More Guerilla Atrocities.
Another Shocking Murder—
We learn from a citizen of Harrison county, West Virginia, that on last Friday night the house of Mr. Henry Swiger, living on Coon’s run, in that county, near the Marion line, was entered by a gang of guerillas, and himself robbed and brutally murdered. The villains had their faces blackened to prevent recognition. Mr. Swiger was roused from sleep by their entrance. They demanded his money, with cocked muskets at his breast, and he gave them what he had in his pockets, some [$40?]. They cursed him, and told him they must have the greenbacks for which he had sold his cattle the day before. As Mr. Swiger turned to pass through a door into another room to get the money, one of the robbers gave the signal to “let in!” and three of them gave him the contents of their guns. Even after receiving three balls the victim did not fall, and one of them snatched up Mr. Swiger’s own gun standing by and shot him dead.
     Mrs. Swiger, who had been a witness of this atrocity, gave the alarm, and the next day some members of a home guard company started out to search for the murderers. They tracked one of the horses ridden to the house of a rebel named John Short, two or three miles distant, and in searching his house found the roll of his gang, including his name. The soldiers also appeared to have some information obtained from the widow of the murdered man. Short was not at home, but they found him at work in a corn field of his brother-in-law, arrested him, took him out, and shot him dead. It was said by those who laid out his corpse that remains of the black disguise were still visible about his face and neck. We learn that two others of the gang have been caught and summary justice executed on them, but did not learn their names.
Reason suggested that it was comical for me to get upset over an event that occurred almost a hundred and fifty years ago, but Reason didn’t share blood with the man who was shot dead in his own house, defenseless and half-asleep. I found myself furious at these vile men who took out their partisan passions on my cousin and, and, yes, I was even satisfied when I learned that one of them had been summarily executed. How similar this episode was, I thought, to episodes from our country’s previous civil war, the American Revolution. I had recently been writing about the slaughterous, opportunistic raids of patriot on loyalist and loyalist on patriot in that brutal war. Many of the circumstances were the same. It had taken only eighty-five years for this drama of internecine cruelty to be performed again on the national stage.

So what was my source of gratification in all this bloodshed? In a mutually beneficial relationship, American history had provided a context for the trials and heartaches of my family, and family history had given me a visceral, personal experience of a formative episode in American history. Most us learn at an early age that the American Civil War was one in which “brother fought against brother,” “father against son,” “neighbor against neighbor.” These are abstract phrases. They are ideas. They don’t stick. They don’t hit their mark, not without concrete images and narratives to attach them to. That’s what novels and movies do—they supply us with concrete images and narratives. They give flesh and blood to ideas and provide us with emotional knowledge, a type of experiential knowledge that we so desperately crave and that is equally as important as intellectual knowledge. Family history research, too, supplies us with narratives and images. The newspaper article recounting the cold murder of my cousin Henry Swiger gives me emotional knowledge. It causes my empathetic neurons to fire several rounds. It gives life to the phrase “neighbor against neighbor.” No longer an intellectual concept, this phrase now evokes for me the terror of helplessness and vulnerability in one’s own home, of going to bed knowing that during the night one’s throat may be slit, his possessions destroyed, and his wife and children raped. This is true knowledge of civil war, next to living through it oneself.

THERE WERE OTHER DRAMATIC episodes in my father’s line that reified the mythic events of our country’s past, such as the colorful story of Dicky’s brother-in-law, Injun Joe Cunningham, who was kidnapped by Shawnee Indians when he was eight years old and didn’t return to his white family for sixteen years. If his archetypal “gone native” story weren’t enough to catapult him to mythical status, according to regional history books, armed with only a knife, he also killed a bear. (Separating fact from fiction in these stories is not always easy.)

I have yet to find the answer to how the fire started that destroyed Dicky and his assets, and I may never find it. It could have been a commonplace house fire—maybe from a fallen oil lamp—instead of a fire started by opportunistic rebels.  But I take great consolation in having stumbled upon an episode that transported me to the final minutes of my first cousin’s life—now that’s genealogical gold. And that’s how ancestral research often works. You start to explore one branch, hoping to find the answer to a very specific question, and a tangential piece of evidence makes you leap over to another, more fruitful branch. I was able to marry our nation’s heritage to my personal heritage. This marriage enlarged my family, my sense of belonging—don’t we all yearn to belong?—and therefore provided me with a fuller sense of myself. I got all that, despite not being able to claim Chaucer’s genes.

Some people find community, even spiritual transcendence, in softball leagues, yoga, and book clubs. Their church is the outdoors, the gym, and the living room parlor. My church frequently changes. An overgrown, thicketed, nineteenth-century cemetery on a West Virginia farm, a courthouse, a Baltimore street of gentrified row houses—these are my churches.

Drew Moore is a freelance writer living in New York City. He has taught Classics and English Literature at Brooklyn College and the United States Military Academy at West Point. Currently, he is working on the first English translation of the New York City prison letters of St. John de Crèvecoeur.
Also in the Fortnightly: On ancestor worship and other peculiar beliefs, by Herbert Spencer.


  1. wrote:

    I was told by a relative (who has actively worked on family genealogy for years)that Geoffrey Chaucer was my 19th grandfather. Like you, I was very impressed, because I am a would-be=professional writer. When I then did much research on the life of Geoffrey Chaucer, I became convinced of the veracity of the ancestry. My grandmother and my sister’s name is “Alice Elizabeth”. The research revealed that Chaucer’s daughter was named Elizabeth and his granddaughter, Alice. My mother’s family ancestor named Samuel Huxford was one of the original founders of Martha’s Vineyard (Mass.) in the 17th Century. Does it all seem plausible?

    Monday, 9 June 2014 at 17:10 | Permalink
  2. wrote:

    Chaucer has no known living descendants: his line died out, like most do.

    Friday, 11 July 2014 at 22:33 | Permalink
  3. wrote:

    You have confirmed what I have known. I am the 18th great grandchild decendent of Chaucer. When I was at Westminister Abby at his sight, I felt the pull to him. This was before I knew I was a direct decendent. Thanks for sharing. It’s all apart of putting pieces together.

    Wednesday, 11 February 2015 at 04:51 | Permalink
  4. wrote:

    Yes, I at first found a connection to Chaucer, before doing more research and discovering that I probably am a descendant of Chaucers, grand-daughter’s husband’s mistress–a French nun, no less.

    Thursday, 19 February 2015 at 16:10 | Permalink

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