The bite of the History bug

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 and called me to seek advice on the lines of inquiry she might pursue from this point.

English: This is a map of the Province of Mass...
Map of the Province of Massachusetts Bay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.  


9 thoughts on “The bite of the History bug

  1. Years ago my Grandmother wanted to know if I wanted to belong to either the DAR or the UDC as she had all the records and dumb me, I said “no thanks”. I saw no need until much later when I was going to college and could have used the scholarships they offered. But then it was too late. The keeper of the keys and all records had passed. How neat that your daughter has the interest. The Internet today is a great tool for digging into the past. I wish her luck.


  2. Wow! This is very impressive. My problem with the genealogy thing was I can’t read any of the history because it’s in Japanese. I’m lucky that my mom is here to help translate.


  3. First….thanks so much for the potatoe salad. This is going to be delicious. Keeping things overnight in the fridge makes it very different.

    Here my father’s father did the family genealogical work. I have masses of it downstairs, and I have lent more masses to the sister in law who does posting to the Mormon data base. The stuff on my mother’s side has been traced back far, far beyond the mayflower. None of this generation seems at all interested in taking part in DAR, Mayflower, and other society things. Perhaps just staying sober is all that really matters to us. Anyway, I plan on starting to enter all the stuff I have into one of the programs when I get done scanning photos.

    Bravo to your daughter.


    • Yes, refrigeration makes a difference and it only gets better with time.

      I seriously doubt there are any relatives on her Dad’s side who would qualify for the DAR, although they were mostly Scots and hated the Brits (and Yankees), but you never know. Stranger things have happened. As for my side, yes, we have an ancestor who fought in the Revolution. At least that’s the family story. Never pursued it very far, but as he is in the Census of 1790 it looks possible.

      I have a friend in DAR who volunteers at the National Archives, and she is working on the records for the Southern Revolutionary soldiers.


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