Do you know the names of your ancestors who lived during the reign of Emperor Goyōzei over 400 years ago? Were any of them famous? Some Buddhist temples have records dating back more than 1,000 years. Have you researched any of them?
Americans used to keep records of births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths in a special section of their family bibles. Many churches still maintain more extensive records of families. But none go back as far as those found in Buddhist temples.
In the past, famous American ancestors were of great interest to their descendants. Those whose ancestors were early colonizers in the United States, especially those who came from England in the 1600’s, were a source of great pride. Ancestors who fought the British during the Revolutionary War were particularly honored. The Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution are two organizations that are still active, but interest in tracing one’s family tree has waned over the past decades.
However, due to the commercialization of the Internet in the early 1990s, learning about a person’s ancestors became much easier than searching through dusty family records. Two Mormon university graduates started a company in 1990 that became ancestry.com in 1996. One of the ordinances of the Mormon religion is the baptism of the dead by proxy. Therefore, having information about a church member’s ancestors who lived before the Church of the Latter-Day Saints was founded is important.
The Ancestry website and several others, including genealogybank.com, findmypast.com, and myheritage.com, accumulate all types of historical records. They include census records, cemetery records, local and state public records, military records, and digitized newspaper sections announcing births, deaths, and marriages. By 2016, ancestry.com had digitized over 30 billion records and had more than 3 million paying members who use the site to expand their family trees. Members often find living relatives, albeit distant ones, they did not know existed.
The site expanded when it bought findagrave.com. People upload photos of gravestones and mausoleums, and the locations, names, and dates are put into a huge database. Ancestry also owns newspapers.com which has almost 600 million records from more than 12,000 worldwide newspapers. Ancestry also owns AncestryDNA.
When I was growing up, I heard that my maternal grandfather’s side of the family boasted of a governor from the state of Rhode Island who fought in the Revolutionary War. My paternal side of the family was another matter. My father did not know anything about his ancestors.
About ten years ago, I decided to investigate. I had two names. The first was Amity West, my great, great, great grandmother, and a family “myth” that her father was the governor of Rhode Island. Through the Internet, I checked the names of all the state’s governors, but I could not find the name West. Then, one day, I typed in “Rhode Island Deputy Governors”, and I found him! His name was William West. During the Revolutionary War, he became a low-level general whose claim to fame was that he led a retreat from a big English army!
I discovered something even more interesting when I found a copy of the WestFamily History. I learned that William West was a descendant of a man named George Soule who immigrated to Massachusetts on the Mayflower in 1620. He was an indentured servant to one of the other passengers. Indentured servants signed contracts to work for an employer for free for a certain period. They were fed, boarded, and clothed. They were, in effect, temporary slaves. Seven-year indentures were the norm at that time.
The other name was Louis Neidhardt from my father’s family. About the time I was researching the West name, I received an email from a member of ancestry.com who asked me if I was related to Louis Neidhardt. The member turned out to be my sixth cousin. He had traced his family tree back to German-speaking Alsace, France, and he introduced me to a more distant cousin and his wife. Alain and Monique are retired anesthesiologists. I and my wife Ayako, who often contributes to this website, have visited our cousins in France, and they have visited us. Interestingly, both their sons have Japanese wives too. (It must be in the Neidhardt genes.) After he retired, my cousin Alain pursued his interest in genealogy and has traced my family tree to 1303.
The big websites are Euro-centric, but many Japanese family trees have expanded, especially the ones starting with Japanese immigrants to the United States. Furthermore, one can find the location of many Japanese graves on findagrave.com. During my research for a novel I am writing, I visited Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s grave at the Yanaka Cemetery near Ueno. You might also check out 谷中霊園 (Yanaka Reien) which has a list of noteworthy Japanese.
If you are interested in history, you may wish to visit Commodore Perry’s grave or Captain Whitfield’s grave. Whitfield was the sea captain who rescued Nakahama Manjiro (John Manjiro) and raised him until he was old enough to return to Japan. You may check John Manjiro out on The Manjiro Story where you can learn about the Manjiro Festival every other year. Speaking of Manjiro, during the research for my yet-to-be published novel, I interviewed one of Manjiro’s descendants who lives in Fukuoka. Since then, my wife and I have become friends with him and his wife.
To conclude, I can say that tracing my family tree has been a very satisfying experience. I have learned much about history, but, more importantly, several distant relatives have become close friends who have enriched our lives.