Blood Of My Blood: My Obsession with Ancestry.com

I had to start this post off with a Game Of Thrones reference. ‘Blood of my blood’, if you’re familiar with the show, is a reference to the Dothraki saying between a Khal and his blood-riders. (6 seasons later, I’m still mourning Khal Drogo. RIP.) It’s a term used to symbolize complete and utter loyalty. In other words, ‘blood of my blood’ means family.

Let’s face it. We all want to feel a connection with the people that came before us. What was their life like? What did they do for a living? When did they get married? How many children did they have? Where did they live? How did they cope with what was going on in the world at the time? I could go on and on. For me, and I’m guessing for most of us, the question really is: how are we alike? 

In this article by Dierdre Foley Mendelsson, Why are Americans Mad about Geneology?, she explores the phenomenon. Behind gardening, researching genealogy has become one of the top American at-home hobbies. Why? “We’re a massive, mobile nation, a nation of immigrants and assimilants, still lacking a robust sense of history, and if nothing else the surprise of six degrees of separation makes us feel less alone.” Her explanation does make sense.

Researching our genealogical line is a modern privilege. Technology like Ancestry.com makes it SO much easier than ever before to find our ancestors through real, true evidence. The site offers hints and these hints can be added to your family tree if found accurate. Hints can be documents like birth records, death records, newspaper clippings, censuses, pictures, and links to other member’s trees that have similar information that can help solidify that hunch that you are, in fact, related to a certain individual and even resemble them in a certain way.

Hints aren’t the only way you can find your blood-riders on the site. Ancestry.com offers DNA tests. I know this is old news (I’ve seen the commercials, too), but as someone who’s had the opportunity to test three of my close family members DNA (my Dad and both of my grandparents on my Mom’s side), I can attest to the reliability of the tests. The DNA also links you to others (distant relatives) on the site that have made their results visible, which allows you to confirm or deny any assumptions you could have about your biological link to some of the ancestors in your tree.

Most recently, my Dad’s DNA was updated as a result of a mass influx of more samples due to the site’s success. More samples = more accuracy. His DNA report changed dramatically as a result, and oui oui, he was more French than we originally thought! This DNA aligned with the research we’d done up his family tree, so I knew I could trust its accuracy.

Even the names we choose to name our children may hold more significance than thought previously. For instance, I was named after my great-grandmother Amelia on my Mom’s side. After doing some research on my Dad’s, I discovered another Amelia, my great-great-grandmother Sarah’s sister.

I also indulge in the PBS show Finding Your Roots (with Henry Louis Gates Jr.). I told you I was obsessed. The show follows well-known celebrities as they unearth their familial histories and even debunk some of their long-held beliefs about their heritage. The host Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard University professor, accomplished filmmaker and journalist, and his web of connections within the historical academic community analyze DNA and historical records of ancestors of notable names like Susan Sarandon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tina Fey, Larry David, and my favorite lawmaker of the great state of Vermont, Sen. Bernie Sanders, among others.

It’s good TV. If you’re anything like me, a ride-or-die fan of Law & Order SVU, Forensic Files48 Hours Mystery, (or just good ol’ Snapped on Oxygen), you love a mystery. I love the drama of it all. Incredible lineage is discovered, long-held secrets are unearthed, and even seemingly bad revelations in the series are given new light which somehow leads each episode ending on an uplifting note.

If I’ve learned anything from my own research and this show, it’s this. Researching heritage can be a lot to emotionally process. It’s important to remember that these people (your people) were just that: people. They were dealt their cards just like we were dealt ours. And we may be blood-related, but we are not our ancestors. We have the chance to not be like the worst of ’em, but be like the best of ’em.

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Date Night: Sackets Harbor, NY

Since this summer I interned in Watertown, NY, I made it a mission of mine to explore the area. I’d previously been to Sackets Harbor, about a 10 minute drive from Watertown, when I was 13 or 14 (when nothing was cool) so it’d been a while since I was there.

My friend Meghan and I decided to take the day, or rather evening, to grab some dinner and walk around historic Sackets Harbor. Our first stop (after finally finding parking – this is the only bad thing about Sackets) was Goodfellos Brick Oven Pizza & Wine bar. Mostly all restaurants and little shops are located on Main Street. So is the harbor, Centennial Park, and the Battlefield path. We had dinner, sat by the lake, and took in the sunset. It was a perfect summer night – and I’m glad I had company but Meghan’s not really my type. Sorry Meg.

I’ve eaten at both The Boathouse and Goodfellos and each meal was deliciously prepared. They both offer outdoor seating, but if you want the view of the harbor, go with The Boathouse. The back of the restaurant gives me a modern Krusty Krab vibe, too.

On the 4th of July (the hottest day of this summer thus far), my friends and I decided to get dinner in Sackets at The Boathouse, soft-serve ice cream at Saturdays, Sundaes & More, and sit in the battlefield (along with a million other people) to enjoy the fireworks. It was brutally hot, but the environment (and food) made the day worth it. The sunset along the lake/river was incredible and we got some really great snaps, too. I don’t know which I enjoyed more – this sunset or the fireworks. Both were incredible. Both were worth the trip.

Sackets Harbor, NY is not only picturesque and lively, but also has a rich history. Founded in 1801 by Augustus Sackett, the land speculator from New York City had high hopes for trade. During the War of 1812, Sackets Harbor became the center of American naval and military activity for Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence Valley. Within a short period, military personnel numbers rose rapidly and the village’s population rivaled those of Albany and New York City.

Two battles were fought in Sackets Harbor, in 1812 and 1813, but luckily in 1814 the Treaty of Ghent was signed that ended the 3 year war.

After the war, much of the naval base was dissipated. Today, though, historic Sackets Harbor lives on. In 1913, Centennial Park, a portion of the battlefield was recognized and set aside to honor the military personnel that fought and died in the War of 1812. The battlefield, park, and historic buildings like the Sackets Harbor Visitor Center or Augustus Sacket’s mansion are available to tour. Find out more about the history and visiting Sackets Harbor here.

And by god, VISIT. Bring a friend, bring a date, bring the fam. Even just for the day, or a night, it’s worth it.

Now & Then: Watertown, NY

I’ll admit it, when I thought about spending my summer in Watertown, NY, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. Although after spending some time here and learning about the city’s rich history, I’ve had a change of heart and learned a lot about this little city.

A little background on Watertown’s history:

Settled in 1800, Watertown was aptly named after the many falls on the Black River and soon after became an industrial powerhouse. At one time, Watertown was named “The Ideal American City” and was home to more millionaires per capita than any other city in the nation. This is because of businesses like F.W. Woolworth Company (the first nickel and dime store ever), Knowlton’s Specialty Papers (still the oldest continuously running paper mill in the nation), and the former Davis Sewing Machine Company owned by George Huffman of the Huffy Corporation (known for their bicycles). These businesses, among others, stimulated the economy and it wasn’t until  the mid-20th century that Watertown suffered economic and population decline due to de-industrialization and expansion west.

A few historically notable and incredibly beautiful aspects of Watertown include the Roswell P. Flower Memorial Library and Thompson Park. Other than the gym, these two places are where I found myself most days after work.

Flower Memorial Library was built in 1903 and was erected as a memorial to Watertown’s own Roswell P. Flower, the 30th Governor of New York. Truly, it’s one of the most beautiful libraries I have ever seen. And I’m not the only one – in 1904, it was named “The Most Beautiful Small Library in the United States.” Flower was a very charitable man and during his term from 1891 to 1894, he signed into law the creation of the City of Niagara Falls.

“He has always made it a rule to give away in charity a certain portion of his income for many years all that he did not need for his own living expenses believing that when a man had wealth he should distribute it while he is alive in order that there be no contest over it when he dies.”

Adorned with marble and the bust of Roswell P. Flower, the library is decadent, yet modern. The original rooms have been well-kept and are adorned with art donated by Emma Flower Taylor, the daughter of the former Governor. The oculus and dome of the library was done by the American architect Frederick Lamb who was known for being one of the principal designers of the Empire State Building. The murals that line it feature four figures personifying history, romance, religion, and science – along with transitional figures that represent fable, drama, lyric, and epic poetry. Fable features Aesop, Religion (St. John and Moses), Lyric (Milton and Virgil), Epic Poetry (Homer and Dante), Science (Darwin and Newton), Drama (Shakespeare and Moliere) and Romance (Scott and Dumas).

I fell in love with this library. I either sat upstairs and worked on my laptop while overlooking the main entrance or read in the North or South reading rooms. Each space was safe, quiet, and clean – and I got a lot of work done, believe it or not. History lines the walls so go in and take a peek. You really won’t regret it.

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Thompson Park, too, is a historical gem of the North Country. Besides the library, this was my favorite place to read. Thompson Park is the smallest city to have a park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect who designed Central Park in New York City. Local industrialist, John C. Thompson, decided to make a donation toward a public park for the growing city of Watertown, however, it was to remain anonymous and it wasn’t until Thompson died that City Park became Thompson Park. The park includes a zoo operated by the Thompson Park Conservatory that was opened in 1920, when the Northern New York Trust Company donated two whitetail deer to Thompson Park and the City of Watertown. The park also includes a monument honoring soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, tennis courts, an 18-hole golf course, a public pool, playgrounds, and multiple hiking trails. The park is located on a hill that overlooks the city and on any given day you’ll see cars parked (including mine) to take in the incredible view. This is where I read – and on the 3rd of July every year Thompson Park hosts fireworks and a live symphony orchestra show (which I went to! It was awesome!).

Watertown is home to the U.S. Army post Fort Drum which serves as a major boost to the city’s economy, as are the many Canadian visitors we have shopping in our stores. (Go to Target and you’ll hear at least one person speaking French.) The city is also home to North American Tapes, the premier hockey tape supplier for the NHL, and of course, the home of where I currently work, Little Trees CAR-FRESHNER!

Watertown’s location is ideal. Go 20 miles north and you’ll reach the St. Lawrence River, the Thousand Islands, and you guessed it – Canada. 70 miles south and you’ll reach Syracuse, NY. Beautiful surrounding towns on the St. Lawrence include Alexandria Bay, Clayton, and Sackets Harbor.

A few more facts about Watertown that are pretty cool:

  • Robert Lansing, born in Watertown, was appointed United States Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson from 1915 – 1920.
  • So was Charles Woodruff Yost, 9th U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
  • The city has the longest continually operating county fair in the United States and this year it falls on July 10 – July 15, 2018.
  • Loveland Paddock and Otis Wheelock built The Paddock Arcade downtown in 1850 and it remains the second-oldest continuously running covered shopping mall in America.

There’s so much information about Watertown out there – but for now, this is all I’ve learned. For some reason, knowing the history of a place makes you appreciate the present more – and I’m glad I’ve learned so much about Watertown, New York’s.

For more information, visit Watertown’s City Page, the Jefferson Historical Society, or Flower Memorial Library.