“His blood courses today in the veins of near a thousand who bear his name, and these are now scattered over a continent which, in his lifetime, was an unknown wilderness, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Then but a mere fringe of feeble civilization had effected lodgments along the seaboard; this, time has proved, however, to have been the seed of the most powerful empire on the globe.”
~ Ledyard Bill
I met a man who died in 1902. Ledyard Bill was his name, and I am proud to call him my 4th cousin, 5x removed. (I know, but it’s still kind of cool) His book, The History of The Bill Family, written in 1867, is still available on Amazon.com even today. The book covers several hundred years of our family line, complete with private stories, recollections, records, certificates, drawings and yes, probably even a few errors and made up stories as this paragraph suggests:
“Though this work doubtless lacks the finish and elegance of style of other and similar publications, yet we have endeavored to make it at least a true and faithful history of the family; also something more than a mere ghostly genealogy, possessing by itself no life and little interest. All criticism might be barred, so far as things questionable in our plan are concerned. Undoubtedly errors of dates and names will appear; it is extremely difficult in a work of this character to wholly avoid them, owing partly to conflicting statements received, partly to indistinct chirography, and partly to the printer, and also to a lack of vigilance in the supervision.”
Over the past several years I have taken it upon myself to become sort of the unofficial family historian. I would like to say it was because of some noble cause; family honor and that kind of thing. In truth, I took up genealogy at a time I when I was out of work and annoying my wife because I had nothing shiny to keep me occupied.
Like with any good puzzle or historical mystery, I delved in full-force. I searched the local LDS library, wrote local government offices and churches for records, and slowly scoured the Internet for photos, using my modern 28k dial-up modem. Late at night, my wife would sometimes find me sitting at the computer, wearing nothing but slippers, chatting to various women in online forums. Granted they were mostly elderly Mormon women who where sharing statistical records, so the Mrs. wasn’t too concerned. (But they could have been Playmates… really! She didn’t have to be so trusting of my sauvé inabilities) These days, the Internet provides a seemingly endless amount of information regarding family histories, personal stories and naked photos of politicians. I merely have to enter a name and date into the Oracle machine, and it spits out the answers I seek. What took my cousin Ledyard years to accumulate, takes but mere seconds to uncover. It makes me wonder where technology will be in another 150 years. Who will be searching the global or interstellar network for information about me? It truly is an amazing time to live in. Ledyard probably thought the same thing about the mid 1800’s with the invention of the telegraph.
As I discover more and more names from my family tree, they begin to blend into a cacophony of visual noise. Each limb, branching off onto thicker and thicker twigs, only to be weighted down with even more names and facts. But with all of the information being collated at unimaginable speeds, there is one thing that brings it all together in a usable form, one thing that slows this spinning world down just enough to make sense of it all… story.
Story has a way of slowing us down, forcing us to take a moment of pause and listen. It’s in these moments that we absorb, and begin to understand the words; we begin to understand the storyteller. It when we understand the person behind the story that we begin to grasp the bigger story. Why did they choose this particular story, at this particular moment to share? What was going through their mind as they wrote it? So when I read Ledyard Bill’s The History of the Bill Family, I find myself no longer connecting to the names but to the people themselves, their lives, their pasts, their dreams and their failures. I connect with the living breath man that was Ledyard Bill. He was the self-appointed family historian as well. Why did he write the book? Was he out of work too? Why did he choose the words he used? Was he wondering what the coming century would bring?
It’s when I ask myself these questions about the past that I begin to plant roots for the future. The branches of my family tree become dense with wisdom, and emotion and life. When I speak to my ancestors, they answer back. And when I ask those questions that undoubtedly pick at the brains of most of us from time to time, when I ask, who am I? I answer with confident pride:
“I AM LEDYARD BILL, AND I’VE LIVED FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS.”