Olivarius: Forget Facebook — dive into your Ancestry

Culture Quotient

Campus has been abuzz with conversation about “The Social Network,” Facebook’s cinematic creation story. The movie highlights how quickly and how closely connected we have become in today’s global cyberverse. With over half a billion users worldwide, Facebook has redefined what “global connection” means.

But frankly, I’m tired of all the commentary on Facebook. It’s amazing. Who cares? I’m more interested in another type of digital social network: Ancestry.com. On Wednesday night, my roommates and I decided skip out on Toad’s. Instead, we drank beer at home and browsed our family histories.

The Yale Library gives us free access to Ancestry.com, which boasts a massive database of census records, voter records, immigration documents, naturalization forms, and birth, death and marriage records. The Huffington Post recently reported that through Ancestry.com searches, genealogists determined that President Obama and Sarah Palin are 10th cousins through an ancestor named John Smith.

The coolest part is that all the records are digitized. You can see your ancestor’s handwriting, the things they crossed out, how they signed their names. It gives me chills.

This is what I knew about my family before I went on this site: My mother’s side of the family comes from Denmark. They lived in New York. Now they live in New Jersey.

Here is what I found out after 30 minutes of Ancestry.com searching: My great-great-grandfather Johannes Define Olivarius was born in Denmark in April 1858. He married a German woman named Carrie and they immigrated to Brooklyn, where they had three children: Amey, Edward and Holger (my great-grandfather). Define owned a sporting goods store and could read, write and speak English. Define also noted that his father was born in “West India.”

All of this information came from one 1900 census record. But my relatives also appear in christening records from Denmark in the early 1800s, on draft cards from World Wars I and II, even on the logs of ships that transported them across the Atlantic.

It helps that my last name, “Olivarius,” is fairly obscure — if your relative’s name is “John Smith,” you are going to have an exhausting time. It also helps that the Olivarius family came through Ellis Island during the 19th century. But if your ancestors came to the States undocumented, illegally, very long ago or very recently, or if they were slaves, you are going to have a much harder time finding information.

But my roommates had luck. Isabel Polon ’11, from Los Angeles, found out that one side of her family came from Austria, a piece of knowledge her family had forgotten. She saw the record of her grandmother’s journey to California after the Holocaust; she weighed only 105 lbs. Anna Robinson-Sweet ’11 followed her family to Eastern Europe and freaked out when she found out her ancestor Abraham Robinson was a labor organizer, just like her.

Centuries ago, people wrote down family trees in their Bibles, including births, deaths and marriage dates. Knowing this basic information was important to them — it gave them a sense of place in a world with much more death, disease and uncertainty. Today, we in the “Facebook Generation” know far less about our great-grandparents than we know about that cute kid in section you recently “friended.”

Ancestry.com reminds us that the world has long been globally connected, long before Mark Zuckerberg’s parents were even born. It also affirms how serendipitous it is that any of us are even at Yale or alive in the first place. Would my great-great-great-grandfather from West India ever have dreamed that I would be living in New Haven with people whose family, two or three generations ago, were from different continents, escaping the Holocaust, speaking Hebrew? What if my great-great-grandfather had been lost in a shipwreck? A personal history, filled with “what ifs.”

Our mothers told us to look both ways before crossing the street. Really, it’s thanks to generations of ancestors who did look both ways that you are here today.

Now, you don’t need Ancestry.com to know that we are alive thanks to a series of unconscious and amazing decisions made long ago by people who never conceived of our existence. But records give us tangible proof, a vivid window. You see your ancestors make decisions about their lives in the moment — big decisions, like travelling around the world, or getting married, or getting naturalized. These decisions, accruing over time, led to the indirect creation of little old you.

How much time do you spend thinking about your potential children’s lives? How about your progeny five generations from now? What are the chances that their circumstances will even resemble your own? Will they remember you?

As we continue to disperse our social interactions — making “friends” with people we hardly know — simply looking back gives us a far greater idea of our identities — a far realer sense of connection than our “friend” count.

Kathryn Olivarius is a senior in Branford College.


  • FailBoat

    Ancestry.com is really cool if you come from the sort of ancestry that kept genealogical records. I presume Ms. Olivarius comes from that white, affluent, educated background, but the rest of us (children of the poor and of immigrants) will have to be content with living in the present with Facebook rather than getting “a far greater idea of our identities” from the faceless names of long-dead ancestors.

  • RexMottram08

    Countdown until her sister comments on this “breathtaking, groundbreaking, incredibly well written and insightful column”………4…..3…..2…..1……

  • AlumO4

    Actually, FailBoat, you’re wrong. Almost none of the stuff on Ancestry.com is based on personal/family records–their source base is mostly official/governmental records that cover everyone from immigrants arriving into New York ports to farmers living out in California in the 19th century. Censuses, ships’ manifests, draft enlistments, birth certificates, etc. aren’t the provinces of the rich–they’re the records of the poor and the middle classes too. I’m pretty sure that my penniless ancestors arriving at Ellis Island weren’t “affluent, [or] educated,” but they’re there in the records, and through censuses I’ve been able to trace how they made their way in American society. I now know that I’m descended from scrap collectors, teachers, factory workers, farmers, loggers, servants, clerks, and a pretty awesome female haberdasher. This isn’t a class issue–it’s just a pretty cool thing for undergrads to be doing on a Wednesday night.

  • FailBoat

    My family is first-generation American. There’s nothing in the records about anyone past my parents. My roommate’s family lived in rural poverty two generations ago and came to this country on slave ships. Nothing much on his family apart from a sparse entry on his grandfather. Just asked a friend online – he’s from the former Soviet Union. Nothing on his family either.

    I’m sure the site is very lovely for those who can use it (ie: those whose families have lived in mainstream Western society for many generations). I’ll be content with Facebook – I don’t need to get a “far greater sense of my identity” from ancestors I’ll never meet.

  • AlumO4

    I still don’t think it’s necessarily a class issue, but I absolutely take your point about the privileging of time in the records: my family may have lived in the slums of New York and in some serious rural poverty, but they did so 90 years ago and that’s why I can see the records, and you’re quite right to point out the difference. As for your other point, I will say that I have had a few friends who’ve been able to trace their families back to enslavement; like all things historical, the records can really be the luck of the draw, especially for communities outside of the mainstream, and it’s never an easy thing.

  • The Anti-Yale

    *I don’t need to get a “far greater sense of my identity” from ancestors I’ll never meet*.


    The Wedding scene in Thornton Wilder’s astonishingly prescient 1928 play “Our Town” contradicts you. You are in daily contact with those ancestors every time a cell is replaced in your body.

    “And don’t forget the other witnesses at this wedding, — the ancestors. Millions of them. Most of them set out to live two-by-two, also. Millions of them.”

    Wilder isn’t talking about “ghosts”. He’s talking about “genes”, even though he didn’t have the slightest idea what they are.

    That’s what Art (with a capital A) does.

    Some day FB you might write like that.

    KK ( keep keyboarding)


  • The Anti-Yale

    *The movie highlights how quickly and **how closely connected** we have become in today’s global cyberverse.*


    The thesis of David Denby’s October 4 *New Yorker* article on *The Social Network* : “Karl Marx suggested that, in the capitalist age, we began to treat one another as commodities. *The Social Network* suggests that now we treat one another ***as packets of information*** (my emphasis).”

    ” From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; *’… Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky . . .’ ”

    Despite his billions of dollars, this simple human act of FACING another human being, apparently, Mark Zuckerberg cannot do.

    Perhaps *facebook’s* gazillion “friends”
    can’t either.

    Maybe we should rename it: ***backbook***


  • chaseom2

    The author of this column must be commended. It has already been called “breathtaking, groundbreaking, incredibly well written and insightful.” This is true. This is true. But it is wise to remember that this immortal achievement is also the work of human hands. Again, it is impossible to not commend the author of this column.

  • Surazeus

    I love genealogy. I started writing poetry in 1986 and developed a style of my own. Then I found out I was descended from Anne Bradstreet, the Puritan poet. I read her works and found my style was quite similar. I was surprised but pleased to find that writing poetry is half genetic and half hard work.