Manassas Journal Messenger | Exploring the family tree

One of my hobbies is navigating the mystery that is my family tree.

I’ve been interested in genealogy since I was in high school, inspired by Alex Haley’s Roots (as well as the potential for college scholarship money offered by various groups.) Tracing my family tree has proven to be difficult, time consuming (more than 20 years), puzzling and absorbing.

One would think that Oppenhagen would be a relatively easy name to trace. It is – there are only about 10 of them in the United States and we know we’re related to all but one. But before I was an Oppenhagen, I was a Green.

Green is a slightly more common name than Oppenhagen. To make matters worse, my Grandfather Green married a Smith girl. That narrowed down search options considerably.

As I trace back on that side of the family, I encounter Creel, which in Louisiana is as common as Green or Smith. And just to be ornery, we marry into the Jones family several times.

My mother’s family made life a tad bit easier for me. We’re Polish on that side of the family. My grandparents were the first generation born in the United States. What that has meant in terms of tracing family roots is that I’ve had to search census records creatively – for some reason census takers in Pennsylvania had trouble with Polish names.

In one census, Klinkiewicz came out as Klinkawieco. At least the family stayed pretty much in one place (and many descendants are still there) and there are great church records to help my search – as long as I learn to read Polish, which unfortunately isn’t offered in many colleges.

Although frustrating, genealogy has been very interesting. On the empirical side, I’ve learned a lot about the history of various states. I’ve had on the job training, so to speak, on land records and patents. I’ve learned a lot about the Civil War on the Confederate side. I’m still working on understanding immigration patterns and am starting to learn about the history of central Europe. I’m getting the opportunity to hone my reading skills with the different handwriting.

On the personal side, I’ve really gotten to know my family and understand where it is I come from. Some of the stories are the stuff of tear-jerker made-for-television movies, just as the story of my father’s parents.

My grandmother’s family had just moved to Texas when my grandmother was orphaned at 13. She had two younger sisters and they stayed at a boarding house where my grandfather happened to be living. The state came in about a year later and threatened to break up the girls and send them to an orphanage.

My grandfather stepped in and married my grandmother so she and her sisters would be able to stay together. She was 14 at the time; he was 24.

Some of the stories are romantic, like the story of my mother’s parents. My grandfather was the oldest son of a Catholic family. Because of that, he was the son destined for the priesthood. That is, until he met my grandmother. Then all bets were off. But this story wasn’t all wine and roses. My grandfather’s mother never forgave my grandmother, wouldn’t talk to her and would kick her under the table when she was over for dinner and little annoying things like that.

And then some stories are mysterious. My great-great grandfather served in the Civil War with the 40th Alabama. That’s all I knew until I found some long lost cousins and then learned that he didn’t volunteer with his cousins and other brothers. He was drafted into service.

After he served, he applied for and received a pension, sold all his property and left the state with his wife and never contacted the family again. He was apparently a very religious man and wrote for the local newspaper and there is some question as to whether he was angry at having been forced to fight and left Alabama for that reason. That’s a puzzle waiting to be solved.

Finding your family tree can be like reading several great books at once – mystery, romance, adventure, maybe even crime. But it’s better than a book because it’s true. And you get to write the last chapter yourself.

Denise Oppenhagen lives in Lake Ridge.

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