My daughter Connie called yesterday, full of excitement. She has a little time on her hands now that summer is here. Her next semester as a Special Ed teacher begins in about a month and she is enjoying doing almost nothing. I say that knowing full well she is down at Virginia Tech today with Joy for freshman orientation. Joy is the last kid to leave the nest…sort of. The little fledglings keep coming back home from time to time.
Connie called because she had been searching for genealogical information concerning her Dad’s family. She says she had been up half the night and found some of her grandparents and great-grandparents on Ancestry.com and called me to seek advice on the lines of inquiry she might pursue from this point.
I have records for my Mom’s family back to 1680 and my Dad’s family (one line) back to 1630. But many of my records are from European registration systems. The remainder from US sources. For example, we can trace one line of our family to the Massachusetts Colony which kept excellent records, and beyond that to the Isle of Guernsey in the English Channel.
I shared some of the limited knowledge I had, including the fact that if you are looking for records in the South, good luck. Many records were lost when Yankees burned the courthouses in Southern towns. Not all the vital statistics records were lost, but the record bank is spotty and depends on where you are searching and if Sherman rode by. Records not destroyed have often suffered years of neglect and vandalism.
In the 1970s, I was doing some historical research on Virginia for a demography term paper, and discovered that many vital statistics records ‘preserved’ in the Richmond courthouse had been subsequently lost. Workers charged with maintaining those records had used them to start the coal fire in their offices every morning.
The other problem with vital statistics records is that births and deaths were often recorded in family bibles and you need to find the relative who has the bible, assuming it has not been discarded along the way. For example, my boss had his family bible, a big old disintegrating thing, and it tracked his family back to England.
While earning my MA in history, I learned how to use the Internet to search for digitized records stored in on-line libraries all over the world. I shared the names of a couple of these sources that might be of help to her: the National Archives, the library of Congress, the genealogical library at the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints in Utah, and the DAR headquarters here in DC. Newspaper archives are another bet. I told Connie her stepbrother Rob found an article in the New York Times about his ancestor who shot and killed a man over a poker game. He also located the manifest of the ship David and his mother took to Europe in 1933.
Historical research is mostly following your nose.
Connie found one paternal great-grandmother whose only name was ‘Mary.’ She says she looked at the line of information about her and felt very strange. It is hard to fathom information about someone who lived so long ago, and who is almost forgotten. Someone who was unknown to all but her closest family, who either forgot her or who chose not to share her last name with the Census taker. If she had a one. Many indentured servants and slaves had no last name.
Connie’s paternal ancestors came from Appalachia, way back in the hills of NC and Kentucky. Mary lived long ago and was probably a mix of several races, as most mountain folk are. She is lost to time and now a great-granddaughter wants to know more about her.
“Aha. I see the history bug has bitten you,” I told her. Luckily, as she has an MA in liguistics and studied languages (Spanish, Latin, German) she can read many of the older European records.