Time Traveling with Family

Maia Kumari Bree Chowdhury
7 min readDec 30, 2020

Story-telling a family genealogy, one byte at a time

The tree in XMind software, capped at 13 generations in this image, with different colors for different branches of the family (screenshot of the work)

For the past few years, I’ve been working on connecting and expanding our family tree in North America, Europe, and Asia. I had the benefit of starting with solid, verified information for the previous five or so generations, and in one case, the known genealogy went back for over one thousand years, thanks due to land holding records kept and tracked in India. What started out as a “simple” project to consolidate bits of research into one chart led to an amazing journey through stories, data mining, and graphic representation. I’ve written this piece to answer questions I’m being asked by those who want to follow a similar path in researching their own trees.

An early experiment in family tree representation showing 27 generations of family members discovered in Eastern Europe, using Excel software to track the research, and in which each generation received its own color blocking to identify it across time (screenshot of work in progress)

I first began to add the known information into an Excel spreadsheet and went from there. I decided at the beginning to not have “the tree” reside in a genealogy subscription-based platform online, mostly because I wanted to be able to maintain control of the output myself. A few years later, I remain satisfied by that decision.

A previous version of the family tree during the early expansion of research, in Excel, showing 28 generations with different colors by geographical region (screenshot of the work)

Over time, I moved the chart, cell-by-cell, from Excel into PowerPoint and then into XMind’s “mind mapping” software where it currently resides. I have been a hardcore mind-mapper for decades since I was first introduced to this approach to creatively documenting a flow of ideas. The nice thing about shifting into more intuitive mind-mapping software is that I can play more with the “how” of the representation. It also exports with ease into a printable PDF booklet of list-based information.

A template of the pages created in PowerPoint, that ultimately became too unwieldy to maintain once the generations began to stack up (screenshot of work in progress)

Being the holder of so much ancestral information has given me a feeling of self-imposed responsibility, and it is a blessing to be able to share the information more cleanly with my family. Who knew that the switch from a data-crunching approach and into a mind-mapping approach would be the key?

Typical XMind “mind mapping” templates that allow for an organized, creative flow of information to be documented, from the start menu of the software (screenshot of work in progress)

Family mysteries intrigued me and others while growing up in Canada, and I sought to close those loops in this research process. Were we really descended from Dutch pirates who settled in Ireland? What happened to all the women in the family in India who, hundreds of years back, never were recorded as having existed? Who were my husband’s Jewish relatives before they came to the New World? And was he really descended from Mayflower immigrants?

Researching places the family has lived and worked, over time, has been one of the great joys of the project. This house is in County Sligo, Ireland. (image via Google Street View)

I was able to answer all these questions. From my research (mostly conducted on weekends, since I have also been working full time), I saw that the path back in County Sligo, Ireland led not to Dutch roots but to Jersey, in the Channel Islands, and that those “pirates” were merchant fishermen hired in private industry and who worked the route between Jersey and Newfoundland.

A terracotta fragment found at Chandraketurgah in West Bengal, India (image via Google Search)

The women in Bengal, India, prior to the British Empire’s colonization, held more strength in maintaining family and village control of assets than I had realized. Researching the history on both sides of the border between India and Bangladesh was easier than expected, once I stopped thinking in terms of “borders” and more in terms of “eras” in an archeological sense.

The current India-Bangladesh border area, without borders (image via Google Earth)

My husband’s ancestors in Belarus and Lithuania, it turned out, were both tailors and rabbis. Not only were there many transcribed records available in both of those countries, but travel bloggers from around the world have also made it their mission to document Jewish roots and cemeteries where they still exist, and those bloggers have been very open in sharing their photos and findings.

These buildings are typical of the historic wooden houses of Jonava, Lithuania, currently undergoing a process of architectural restoration (via Google Street View)

And yes, I found the Pilgrim connections, many times over, including an expansion of family stories for the tree that exceeded anyone’s expectations. I even found out that my husband and I share a distant relative, an ancestor in the 1400s in Yorkshire, and farther back, we share a Norwegian ancestor who settled in the Orkney Islands.

Using XMind’s stickers and markers to identify which ancestors came over on the Mayflower from England, and which ancestors are connected by genetics, or by historical events (screenshot of work in progress)

Delving into geographic place names (right down to the names of historic villages and family farms), especially with current mapping software available online, is one of the greatest delights of this project. A farm in Yorkshire is named as a distinct place in a birth certificate. I find it online. It still exists! I travel the roads. I see the fields. The flyover is tremendous. I’m traveling without even leaving home. A shop address in Dublin is listed in a census. I find it online. The address, once a shop, is now a popular café. They’re busy on social media. I follow them, and I’m traveling once again. A house is listed by address in an Eastern European tax record from the 1800s. I find it online. I see the street, fly up and down it. Can I convey how fun this is, to someone else? I research the villages in India. Has the Ganges River changed its course over time? Naturally. I overlay the old maps with the new, and presto, I see the reasons why the villages moved, and the ancestors relocated.

A screenshot of Google Earth, showing how the Ganges River has moved, in the areas my family lived in Bengal, in what is now the border area of India and Bangladesh (image via Google Earth)

Others have asked me how I did this (going back hundreds of years, with stories researched) and how they can, too. The main thing I did was to approach the research in a meditative, intuitive way, asking questions all the way along, and never assuming that a line of research was completed.

This is truly a never-ending project.

For example, if I were researching a lineage on one of the genealogy search engines and I came up to an “end”, I would write some questions to be set aside for a later time. There are many genealogy search engines, and there are also national databases around the world that are country-specific.

A snippet of the current draft of our family tree, exported from XMind software into a printable PDF format (photo from my iPhone)

The number of records being transcribed, translated, and uploaded by volunteers and professionals around the world is staggering. What was available ten years ago compared to today, is exponentially greater, and the data continues to magnify. To dive into this data pool, I stayed curious, open, and asking. Who were the people of this village? What were their occupations? What was their reason to stay, or to move? Over time, through the intuitive research process, the answers would reveal themselves, usually as I worked on a different line.

Swimming in different cultural and linguistic pools of data was easier when breaking up the research by a good night’s sleep in between — this is suburban Kolkata today, flying over previously independent village lands in what is now West Bengal, India. (image via Google Maps)

I found I had to sleep overnight in between researching different national databases of genealogical information. The web design lexicon of different countries mimicked their linguistic roots; sleeping in between researching these different genealogy databases helped me to reboot, too, and I was able to focus my research more nimbly. Often, I would wake up with a knowing of “what to search” and the information would be there online for the gathering and clarification. And when differences in language defied me, I turned first to family members for translation and then to the internet for verification.

Screenshot of an original family record from London, England, documenting an ancestral marriage in 1566 (image via Ancestry.com)

And verify I did. I was able to confirm the “stories” in most cases by searching for the original birth certificates, marriage certificates, census records and death records. I didn’t stop there, though. I would search for historical records and documents about the family names and village regions of the eras, often reading original texts scanned by the Google Books project or that are online as scans of microfiches and held by museums around the world.

Following the curve of the road through an ancestral village in Norfolk, England (image via Google Street View)

Sometimes I had to pay a small fee to read the information, but usually not. I have periodically jumped into a paid membership on Ancestry.com, but have conducted most of the research outside of it. I am not a professional genealogist. I don’t even consider myself to be an amateur genealogist. I do consider myself to be an armchair traveler, especially in this time of less-travel, and by staying curious to the details of the places and ethnographies of the family groups, I was able to unearth hundreds of small stories previously unknown within my family.

As an architect who specializes in historic structures (my day job), some of the imagery I found on Google Street View of family buildings and streets had a real impact on my imagination — this screenshot is from Dundee, Scotland. (image via Google Street View)

In this story-telling approach, I have favored relations over genetics. This is not a project to document the transfer of the gene pool. When adoptions are seen and known, I celebrate them. When identities are concealed or revealed to be untrue, I honor the path of the individuals who felt the need to create the stories in the first place. And when I have a sense that someone isn’t who they said they were, I take that at face value, and I track it as “I have a sense of this” and I record it as such.

The genealogy for me is, more than anything, a story map of who we were, who we said we were, who we wanted to be, and what we want to see.

www.mkbcstudio.com

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Maia Kumari Bree Chowdhury

Architect | Artist | Author #adaptivereuse #architecture #mixedmedia #ecofiction #solutionsjournalism www.mkbcstudio.com