A Colonial in the family?

My daughter Connie called me about a half-dozen times yesterday. Sometimes I don’t hear from her for a week, but currently she is excited about the genealogical project she started on her father’s family, and wanted to share what she has discovered.

I have already assembled much of my genealogical history (both sides), so she knows a lot about my family. My youngest son John began to research his Dad’s family with the help of my second cousin Elaine who did extensive research on my Mom’s family before she died.  To research her paternal grandparents family history, Connie has been using Ancestry.com, a great firm for this work according to one of my American history professors at GMU.

When you begin genealogical work, the first thing to think about is the power of 2.  By that I mean as you work your way back into your past, the numbers of direct ancestors increases by the power of 2.  This means you have two parents 4 grandparents, 8 great-grands, etc. Generally, the family tree looks like a tree, as you progress up the trunk, the trunk it splits and splits again so that by the time you get to the ninth generation you have over 1,000 ancestors (2 to the ninth power).  The best you can hope to do is trace one line at a time to build your tree.

The power of 2 can seem overwhelming at first. However, until the Industrial Age, most folks did not travel more than 20-30 miles from their villages, and most never moved away from the place where they were born. This means you probably  have cousins marrying cousins for much of your history. 

Assuming the average length of a generation is about 20-25 years, nine generations takes you back about 200 years or roughly the era of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, which according to some historians was a ‘World War’ and terribly disruptive. Connie has been able to trace one of her genealogical lines back to the early 1600s through her paternal grandmother Rachel.


Rachel’s family had lived in the same settlement in NC for decades by the time of her birth in 1919. Rachel’s mother died when she was 4 years old, impoverishing her farm family. 

Because Rachel herself told me she descended from Lumbee Indians, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lumbee, we expected to find indentured servants in the family, and may yet do so. But Connie has discovered one branch of Rachel’s direct ancestors descended from the First Families of Virginia. 

Rachel had ancestors at Jamestown (1607), of English origin. One of them bought the land for his house from John Rolfe (husband of Pocahontas).  Coming forward, a century or two, Connie located six ancestors (so far) who fought in the American Revolution.  She hasn’t reached the Civil War in her backtracking, but I expect she will find even more surprises there.  Connie discovered she and her brothers are related to folks all over Virginia owing to ancestors living in Virginia so many centuries ago.  

The branch of the family Connie has tracked is predominantly English. If Bryan Sykes (Seven Daughters of Eve) is correct, folks are not as rootless as popular history would have us believe. Sykes writes about the people of Cheddar in England, most of whom have the same DNA as the ancient Cheddar man discovered by paleoanthropologists in a nearby cave.

Connie told me she found some “immigrants” in her English line, and I asked her about them.  She says, they migrated from New Jersey and New York, but were originally from the Netherlands.  I had to laugh at that.


Geneology is fun and can quickly become an obsession.  As Connie stayed up until 3 AM to work on her family tree night before last, and as of 1  PM yesterday afternoon, had not eaten a bite, I suggested she take a break and eat something.  Believe me, you will be at this for days, weeks, months, and years, I told her.


Ancestry.com is in Utah and I suspect they have tapped into the Mormon data base which houses a gold mine of information collected from US censuses and vital statistics.  Connie says for an additional monthly fee you can tap into foreign records which means she could trace her English ancestors in England. Because I have worked with English records for both my MA in Demography, and my MA in History, I know they have excellent information. 

In addition to companies which offer genealogical information from vital records and censuses, other companies will test  your mtDNA (there are at least 3 kinds of DNA) and your deep ancestry. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitochondrial_DNA 

One of my favorite PBS programs is Henry Louis Gates “Roots” which compiles genealogical information every February to celebrate Black history month.  For more information about Gates work, check out this link: 



I warned Connie, that sooner or later she will find slaves in the family.  All those FFV families owned slaves, and many of them interbred with the slaves as well as indigenous natives, if we are to believe the history surrounding the Jefferson and Byrd families. We have long suspected Rachel had African genes.  I suspect the Civil War had something to do with her family’s poverty.

I told Connie, who is a linguist by training, that in digging through all these old records, you are becoming a historian. Ain’t it fun??    

14 thoughts on “A Colonial in the family?

  1. We have a distant relative who has traced my father’s family a bit, and a cousin who has started on her great grandmother’s roots. Since the cousin’s great grandmother was my maternal grandmother’s sister, this energetic and committed cousin has done the footwork for a bunch of us descendants. She is also scanning old photos and documenting identities. And she is eager to share. I am thankful for her!


  2. My son has taken on the project for our family. He’s gone back pretty far like your daughter. And you’re right, it can quickly become an obsession. I really don’t want to find out how many no goodnick relatives were hanged along the way.


    • Davoid’s son discovered his grandfather had shot and killed a man in NYC over a dispute in a poker game. Although the incident occurred in Knoxville the story was in the NYTimes. Also, David thinks his ancestors hid out in caves in the hills of NC and TN to escape conscription during the Civil War.


  3. My mother began researching our roots and my brother has continued. He has traced our family back to England in the early 1600s. Some of our ancestors came over on the Mayflower and some came to Jamestown. We haven’t found any slaves, but we are related to Benedict Arnold.


  4. I’ve been thinking of employing someone else to do this for me. A bit silly really, come to think of it. I am sure there are similar websites in Central Europe. It would be very interesting. Perhaps I’ll find the time . . . .


    • If you can afford it and don’t want to do the work yourself, do hire a professional. Many people enjoy doing the work themselves. Such a thrill to look at the birth and death certificates of someone in your family.


  5. Gigi, Your problem with the Korean language is the same problem I have with reading Polish. As for your daughters, their geneology would of course include David’s line. The English line is the easiest to trace. They have great records.

    Yes, geneological work generally includes biological children, although adopted children can trace their roots if they know their biological parents. Wendy has this problem. Her grandmother was a foundling and they have no idea of her background except it seems to have included Chinese. Dianne


  6. It would be impossible for me to trace my grandparents’ roots, as I can’t read or write Korean, despite studying the language at Columbia and UH. As you know, they were the 1st generation to immigrate to Hawaii. But, it would be interesting to trace David’s family tree. His father was Irish, and his mother English-Scottish. Would this include only biological children, not those adopted?


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