sábado, novembro 12, 2016

Researching the Family Tree

As a child, I used to spend long holidays at my maternal grandparents', in a small town in the country. I always loved to listen to my grandmother telling stories about her father, her childhood and several more or less distant relationships, also enjoyed looking at old photographs of my greatgrandfather, a legendary surgeon barber quasi medical authority in the village, and browsing the dusty and cobwebbed filled attic, where I found a small stash of old books signed by some distant ancestors, even a funny old recipe by that greatgrandfather's grandfather, from 1817 (trades were usually passed from father to son then, so I came from a line of surgeon barbers). Being already at that time a History nerd, I wondered who these people were, and started researching the family tree as I could - went to the cemetery to look at their graves (very few, since the cemetery had been relocated in the 1920s), and convincing the vicar to let me browse the church records, where I found a number of dates and of unknown relatives. But the books were very incomplete, I was 14, and after drawing a reasonably complete tree (or so I thought) until the early 19th century, I left it at that and forgot about if for decades.

A few weeks ago, chatting with a colleague, she told me how her sister was excited about researching their family tree, and how nowadays one can find lots of information on the internet, since the Torre do Tombo (our national archives) has scanned most of church registers and they're available online. This reawakened my curiosity about my ancestors, and so I started researching the archives online; naturally I started again on my grandmother's village, with the people I had first heard about as a child.

So I did a lot of browsing in the last few weeks, and finished the available registers online from that village church; not only I found lots of unknown relatives and some more distant ancestors, even one decorated with the Ordem da Torre e Espada, one of the highest honorific orders in Portugal, but most of all it has been extremely interesting to look at the picture of a 19th century rural village in Portugal that emerges from these records (covering mostly the second half of the 19th century). It's impressive what a small and backward place it was, and how much life changed in 100 years (fortunately!).

It was a very sedentary place - people were born, lived all their lies and died there. I think there were no more than 3 dozen family names, in several combinations as people married each other, so they were all more or less related; there were a small percentage from nearby villages, and I found a Spaniard from Toledo - God knows how he got there. They were not very imaginative about first names either - tons of Manuel, Joaquim, António, José, João, a few Vicente, Eduardo, Diogo, Pedro. The girls were mostly Maria, also Antónia, Joana, Joaquina, Isabel, a few Gertrudes, Tomázia or Ana (there was one family, the Beirão family, that was a little more creative, with names as Alberto or Matilde). Only the abandoned children (the exposed ones, so named as in ancient Rome) got different names, probably from the saint on whose day they were found, so they were named anything, from Severino to Escolástica.

The trades were not very diverse either. Lots of shepherds, day workers (jornaleiros, the ones who worked by the day, probably in peasantry), some farmers, carpenters, stonemasons, a few landowners, shopkeepers, tailors, shoemakers, barbers, hatters (there were the chapeleiros, hatters, and the sombreireiros, maybe they made umbrellas? I'm not sure, sombreiro is derived from the Spanish word for hat), even some muleteers, and a few beggars, also found one describe as destitute (indigente) and even a hermit, from the small Saint Appolonia's chapel. It was a very class conscious world - most people were marked out as "poor", meaning they couldn't pay the fee for burial, and the most affluent ladies were marked out as Dona, unlike the ordinary women. If one died at the hospice, one was marked out as "housed" (albergada). Most people couldn't write, so the vicar signed for them over a cross.

The infant mortality was appalling: for every adult's death there were about 5 children, most of them in the first months of life. It was common for the newborns being baptized by the midwife - "as of necessity", unless they would die before they could be taken to church, my own greatgrandfaher was baptized that way. In the year of 1865, for instance, there were 17 adults' deaths, against 38 legitimate children and 20 exposed babies. (The amout of exposed babies was somewhat surprising - lots and lots in the 1860s, then less until no mention of them in the 1890s,) Sometimes the vicar would register the cause of death: "forte apoplexia" (a stroke), garrotilho (diphtheria), "súbita e inesperadamente" (sudden death), "anazarca" (probably heart failure), drowned, "falta de forças" (anemia? heart failure?).

And then there are the human, often moving, details. Like the woman who died "dashing herself down a well" (precipitando-se em um poço) - of course she didn't get her sacraments, my greatgreatgreatfather who couldn't take the "viático" (last communion) because of vomiting ("but he showed willingness to take it, so I showed him the Lord and it was as if he had taken it"), the young woman who couldn't take the sacraments because she was "stricken down by a shotgun" (fulminada por um tiro, then he body was sent to the city for autopsy - a murder?) and above all the obituary of two little girls, aged 3 years and a few months, that were "consumed by fire in a hut where the two innocents had been left unattended" (consumidas por um fogo em uma choça onde as innocentes estavam desamparadas").

So, all in all, this research has been extremely interesting, and I'm going to research more, from other villages and other sides of the family.

(The photo is from the village, Alcains, the street where my grandmother was born.)

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