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  • Writer's pictureNicola Niemc

Genealogy – when the past is more interesting than today

Updated: Apr 18, 2021

Washington Peabody. Now if that isn’t a name just itching to have a book written for him, then I don’t know what is. I imagine him as a sort of Charles Pooter-figure, endlessly getting involved in all sorts of mild mishaps, and with a general exasperation at the rest of his lesser-named fellows. Of course, I could be doing the man a mis-service. He might have been an everyday kinda guy – the sort who went about his daily work in a quiet, good-mannered fashion, was well regarded by his peers at the office, and who eventually had a huddle of small tots who loved to nestle with Grandpa P every Sunday evening.


Except… he never reached that pinnacle of homely satisfaction. Washington Peabody died in 1870 aged just 24; as far as my research can discover, unmarried and leaving no descendants. He did, however, travel somewhat impressive distances for the times. Born in 1846 in Knox County, Illinois, he covered over 1,500 miles to end his days in Arizona. Quite why he made this voyage, I have not yet discovered, although I should think either the prospect of work or a religious mission were usual reasons back in the day.


According to My Heritage, Washington Peabody is a “distant relative” of mine, so far-removed I can’t even begin to try and figure out how we are related. You see, at the present count, I have 20,415 people in my family tree. Yep, you read that right, I didn’t mis-type. Thanks in part to the fantastic collection of resources available on My Heritage, but mostly due to my own obsessive nature, I have created a gargantuan online family, one that is far too big to even consider setting down on paper and that I no longer have any sort of handle on.


And this is only from one grandmother. I still have an English grandfather, a Scottish grandmother who might have been a distant relation of Donald Trump’s mother, and don’t even get me started on the Polish grandfather (if anyone knows of any Polish/Prussian family history resources, please please please let me know!!).


Why have I gone this far? Are there no other things I could be doing? Well, yes and no. Thanks to the past year of on-off lockdowns, we have all had a lot more time stuck inside, glued to computer screens. And yes, I could, and should, have been continuing with my current WIP, but my brain goes through phases, and I’m just not in creative writing mode currently. I also have not got the necessary time and attention to devote to the Open University course which I am itching to apply for, and so family research satisfies the detective side of my brain nicely.


So what’s the appeal? Is it because I have such a small, living family that leaves me eager to make some sort of connection, even if it is with sadly-deceased people? I suspect this theory explains a lot about the attraction of family history for me. I am an only child, and while I wouldn’t particularly care for siblings now, I would have loved the companionship when I was younger. Indeed, I would never wish single-child syndrome on anyone, and if I ever do have children of my own, they will be that – plural.


With regards to the deceased members of my tree, when you’ve gone as far back in time as I have, you’re bound to stumble across a few historically important figures. Charlemagne, a direct ancestor over 41 generations. Rollo of Normandy, forefather of William the Conqueror, and my 38th great-grandfather. Although it is of course ridiculous to consider these medieval, practically mythical figures as being part of the family, this sort of information really gets my historical juices flowing. And what better stimulus for my WIP – a fantasy, medieval-based romance – than these valiant kings and knights of yore?


One final thought; according to the bastion of reliable information that is Wikipedia, every single modern European is likely to be descended from Charlemagne. So if you are European, we’re probably related! Now isn’t that something to be grateful for?


Coming soon (perhaps): The Adventures of Washington Peabody…

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