Climbing Your Family Tree (January 1991)
Climbing Your Family Tree (The Official Ellis Island Handbook) is the comprehensive, kid-friendly genealogical primer for the 21st century, and a dramatic story of how and why our ancestors undertook the arduous voyages of immigration to this nation. It teaches kids to track down important family documents, including ships’ manifests, naturalization papers, and birth, marriage, and death certificates; create oral histories; make scrapbooks of photos, sayings, and legends; and compile a family tree.
A full chapter is devoted to the online search, and relevant Internet information has been incorporated into all the other chapters. Also new are more kids’ genealogical stories and a reworked, easier-to-use design, and supporting the book is a Web site that includes record-keeping pages, links to sites in the book, and more. Climbing Your Family Tree has been completely revised, updated, retitled, and filled with detailed guidance on utilizing the Internet.
Ira Wolfman is a published author of children’s books. Some of his published credits include: Climbing Your Family Tree: Online And Off-Line Genealogy For Kids, My World And Globe: Revised Edition and Jewish New York: Notable Neighborhoods And Memorable Moments.
Alex Haley contributed to Climbing Your Family Tree by writing the introduction:
Introduction To The First Edition By Alex Haley
How I wish I could have read this book when I was a child. If I had, I would have been so much more aware that my grandparents were a source of riches beyond belief. I would have known that the stories they told—stories about themselves, their parents and their grandparents—were gifts more precious than the greatest of treasures.
If I’d been aware of these things as a child, I would have known to listen much more closely to my family and to keep a notebook of what they said. I would have known what further questions to ask—questions seeking anything and everything they knew about our history.
And I knew they would have loved telling me.
Because both of my parents were teachers, they saw to it that most of my presents were books. It tingles me today to think that if I had been given this book, I would have plied my elders about every aspect of their lives. Where did they live? What work did they do? What clothing did they wear? What games did they play as children? Tell me, I could have asked, what was it like when your family went to church?
I could have kept notebooks from early on. I could have sketched and written descriptions of what my elders told me about how they dressed, or their games, or the horses and mules and wagons and buggies that were their transportation. And of the cotton and tobacco farms where they worked.
It strikes me as significant that two of the most popular books of modern times were written by authors who had once been grandchildren in southern families, sitting and listening as their elders frequently, proudly, told family stories.
One of these grandchildren was a little girl from Atlanta, Georgia, whose name was Margaret Mitchell. For years, Margaret heard the family stories and was taken as a child to visit Civil War sites on the outskirts of Atlanta. She would grow up to write a book that, along with its later motion picture, would fascinate the whole world. The book and the film were, of course, Gone With the Wind.
The second book was my own Roots, which was born on the front porch of a gray-frame home in the very small town of Henning, Tennessee. After the death of my grandfather the year that I was five, my deeply grieving grandma Cynthia Palmer wrote asking her five sisters to come and visit the next summer. And they all did.
A pattern quickly developed: After supper in the evenings, they would gather on the front porch in their rocking chairs. Dipping snuff, which they skeeted out over the honeysuckle vines and the blinking fireflies, they talked night after night about their own childhoods as the children of former slave parents Tom and Irene Murray. Their daddy was a strong, stern blacksmith. And they talked most of all about his daddy their grandfather, my great-grandfather, a most colorful slave gamecock fighter whose name was George Lea and whom everybody called by his nickname of “Chicken George.”
They recalled his mother, who lived in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, and was called Miss Kizzy. And then her parents—the Big House cook Miss Bell and the master’s buggy driver, an African, who said that his African name was Kinte.
I sat listening night after night, until the ancestral family stories became fixed in my memory. It would be 40 years later that I would remember and decide to try to research the skeletal story I’d heard. The eventual result was the book and its television miniseries, Roots.
And now I’m astonished to think how much more I could have learned from those dear old ladies on the front porch if only I’d known to ask them questions, as I would have—if only I had read this book. ~ Alex Haley, 1991.
(The above introduction by Alex Haley is presented to our audience under the Creative Commons License. © 1991, 2002 by Ira Wolfman and The Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Foundation. All Rights Reserved.)