Mice tracks

While we at Our Old House maintain a certain amount of “isolation” during this pandemic, we have walked or snowshoed our property for exercise, noting as we passed the tracks the local wildlife has made. Coyotes, deer, rabbits, bobcats, foxes, and others roam our “back forty.” I began to think about the same tracks Our Old House builder Asa Williams would have encountered in the late eighteenth century, along with the occasional bear or wolf, hopefully not in the front yard. Grizzlies on the lawn? No thanks!

What do I get on my front lawn?


I noticed the tracks as I was out walking in hopes of clearing my befuddlement concerning my family history research. In a house this old, cracks, crevices, and a few holes are common, and the local rodent population is adept at finding them. The tunnels they make under the snow look like my current family history research plan: wandering in circles with no clear destination.

I understand there are those people who have made great progress in their family history research while being cloistered. I am not one of them.

My “squirrel bins,” those havens of genealogical distractions, have already been thoroughly plundered, organized, and packed away; family files were color-coordinated long ago; online research has slowed down because I need to actually visit certain repositories for information not found online, and they are invariably closed, limited in appointments, or require hours of travel.

My “squirrel bins,” those havens of genealogical distractions, have already been thoroughly plundered, organized, and packed away…

I know I’m not alone on this plateau. I just refuse to believe that there is nothing more to be learned, nothing more to be discovered, nothing more to enjoy in the hunt for information on my ancestors’ daily lives. So I tried moving laterally in family history, researching those people who lived and worked in the communities around my reticent relatives. I’ve found squirrel bins of a different sort: online.

I’ve found distant cousins who had more adventurous lives than the farmers of closer lineage, a few sailors as well as unrelated stagecoach drivers and local storytellers. Tales of travel and reminiscences of local daily life in the early 1800s encouraged me to find out more about the people in those tales as well as their authors. References to epidemics that seem to have been written yesterday make me happy to be where I am.

I may still be somewhat befuddled (which could be my normal state of mind, sad to say), but there’s some progress. These online squirrel bins seem to be just the distraction needed!

My advice is to follow your mice . . . er . . . muse. We can never tell where their tracks will lead.

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for WBUR.org’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

8 thoughts on “Mice tracks

  1. We never really understand our own ancestor’s lives unless we understand the lives of those in their community, too. So there is no way we can ever be “done” with family research. In working on a blog post this past week, I realized for the first time that the ancestor I was writing about on my mother’s side, was connected in many ways to ancestor’s of my father’s side, way back in the early 1700s. Her folks knew his folks, some probably shared family dinners and church memberships, and I find that remarkable. Who knew?

  2. I agree completely with every one of your comments in this post. Especially trying to continue research while we are staying home – even when some online sources are inaccessible for various frustrating reasons. I don’t see mice trails in my yard, but my bird bath is the drinking fountain for the deer.

  3. I happened to see seven deer go by my house at 1:45 am (don’t ask). What a wonderful sight. I wish I had had a camera in hand at the time.

  4. I have always learned that by learning as much as possible about the siblings of my ancestors as well as my direct ancestors, will sometimes lead me to actual discoveries about my direct ancestors. Learning about the collaterals got me actual portraits and pictures of the direct ancestors thanks to meeting and corresponding with second third and fourth cousins

  5. My “squirrel bin” contained a carte de visite of two dead robbers from the Jesse James gang who visited the Northfield [Minnesota} bank in 1876. The family has always thought of it as family members who were photographed with their heads juxtaposed onto the bodies of those deceased. Thanks to Antiques Roadshow, I revisited that photograph and have found out it was probably purchased by my Phelps family about 145 years ago as a souvenir.
    The wildlife here don’t seem to use the Covid rules; lately, I was able to get a shot of a herd of eight deer in my front and back yards. No masks or social distancing, and I live in town.

  6. Might be a great time to adopt a local old cemetery whose records are lacking but headstones, or Findagrave entries, intact? I’ve got such a project at the cemetery of Michigan’s first English speaking Catholic Church founded by pioneers who immigrated from Ireland. It is fascinating just how much is attainable even when starting with nothing but headstones in a family plot and a cemetery reading from the 1980s. I started with a Civil War Medal of Honor recipient and though him, his father and brother in the plot developed a tree that allowed me to reach out to 3 different descendants on a tree of 216 people.

  7. After several years of trying to find answers about the furthest back ancestor in America, and of talking about how I’m going to write our family history in the context of American history; I decided COVID isolation provided undistracted time to get to it!
    No, I don’t have all the answers yet. But for the writing project, I have done even greater research on the time and places. Fascinating. At least I can paint a picture of what life was. And I’m discovering facts about closely associated “fellow travelers,” which offer great promise of leading me to my goal. If I never do find the answers, I hope to inspire a curious descendant into delving into these mysteries.

  8. I thought I was the only one! Ironically, this morning I, too noticed mice trails around the foundation of my almost 100 year old home! There is, indeed, something to be learned in everything and from everyone. I have been enjoying the journey, where ever the squirrel bins and mouse tracks take me. I have learned that those paths, though seldom “lateral”, have led me to the most delightful and fruitful discoveries, including friends and cousins I’ve met along the way. These connections flesh out give my family tree. Thank you for your opportunity to reflect and celebrate the joy of meandering.

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