by Ben Swenson
Libraries can contain vital links to the past, like these photographs and transcripts found at the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library.
Online digital collections with data and photographs have all opened windows that previously did not exist.
Blank pages in a Bible, often tucked between the Old Testament and the New Testament, might record the significant dates in family history - the births, marriages and deaths. To those searching for elusive ancestral clues, a family Bible can be the link to a vital piece of a genealogical puzzle … A maiden name. A birth date or place.
Tools that used to be available only to the wealthy are now available to millions of amateur genealogists.
Consider the ancestry of Alex Haley, late author of the novel-turned-miniseries, “Roots.” Many branches of Haley’s family tree lead back to West Africa. But Haley had always insisted that a paternal great-grandfather was a white overseer named Baugh. As was so often the case with enslaved families, there were no written records to confirm this family lore.
In 2007, technology allowed science to test Haley’s relationship to that distant Baugh. Professional genealogist Megan Smolenyak convinced Haley’s nephew to allow genealogical DNA analysis. The result not only confirmed Haley ancestry in the British Isles, but led to the discovery of cousins from Scotland named, of all things, Baff. As with so many families, a spelling change somewhere along the way obscured the branches of the family tree. In this case, “Baff” and “Baugh” each rhyme with “laugh.”
No amount of mind-numbing slogging through reels of microfilm could have led to this discovery. “They never would have found this connection through a paper trail,” says Smolenyak, author of several books, including “Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing.” “Unfortunately, the Haley family was enmeshed in slavery, and very few records were ever kept.”
Breakthroughs in biology, such as DNA analysis, are only part of the revolution in genealogy. Online digital collections, such as government data and photographs and social media have all opened windows that did not exist before, allowing many more people to make personal connections to collective history. Even though one’s ancestors may not have been famous, many who take up genealogy find it satisfying to learn about the day-to-day doings of their forebears.
Besides, many would argue, the course of history has been determined by many whose names did not appear in history books.
When Ken Stith first began tracing his family roots in the late 1980s after retiring from the Navy, he had little clue where his search would lead him. To date, he has confirmed relations to nearly 400,000 kinsmen by blood or marriage, scattered throughout the United States and beyond. Such an exhaustive register was made possible by online networks and databases.
Stith, who lives in Marietta, Ga., was able to track down distant relatives who lived in 18th-century Williamsburg. The Mary Stith House on Duke of Gloucester Street belonged to one of his ancestors; William Stith was president of the College of William and Mary. His siblings, Buckner and Catharine Stith, are buried in the churchyard of Bruton Parish Church. Their grandmother was Catherine Blaikley, a Williamsburg midwife who helped deliver more than 3,000 babies. Marriages expand Stith’s ancestry even more, linking him to the Randolphs, Jeffersons, Washingtons, even Pocahontas.
The genealogical discovery with the most personal meaning to Stith came through the website Find A Grave. Because his mother was orphaned at an early age, Stith knew little about her side of the family. He was nevertheless able to find a record of a maternal great-grandmother’s burial at the website and beneath that entry, a personal note reading “Rest in peace Grandma.” A couple emails later, Stith found out about a line of close cousins he never knew existed.
“Without that website, I might have gone to the cemetery one day and said, ‘There’s great-grandma’ and gone about my business,” says Stith. “But now I was able to link up with a cousin, Brenda, and connect all those family members.”
Many businesses and enterprises have sprung up in recent years to cater to curious amateur genealogists such as Stith. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which maintains as one of its ministries the collection and preservation of family history resources, has been joined since the late 1990s by a handful of growing Internet-based genealogy companies that compile vital statistics and government data and allow subscribers to make and share family trees. Other online firms have carved out their own place in the genealogical landscape, focusing on digital historic newspapers, military service records or hard-to-access foreign information. And as the Haley family discovery illustrated, personal DNA tests offer insight into the continental origins of those willing to swab a cheek.
The business is booming. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, genealogy is the second-most searched topic online (after adult-themed websites). Market leader Ancestry.com, which estimates that 83 million people in the United States have an interest in using an online genealogy service, took in revenues of $540.4 million in 2013. The popularity of family history has been fueled by a host of television shows that investigate the lineage of notable personalities.
Some of the resources online are available free-of-charge, but most companies charge a fee to access their databases. Those subscriptions can add up to thousands of dollars a year. Many libraries, however, offer these caches for free for researchers willing to visit.
Colonial Williamsburg’s John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, allows onsite access to three fee-based genealogy websites, as well as dozens of other historical databases helpful for family history. Staff there field perhaps a half-dozen genealogical inquiries per week from patrons with a range of research experience, according to public services librarian Juleigh Clark.
Sometimes Clark and her colleagues can direct family historians to resources that Colonial Williamsburg’s Research Division has digitized and made available online. Several family Bibles have been transcribed and posted online. The Burwell family Bible records vital statistics from the birth of Lucy Burwell on Oct. 23, 1740, (at 2 o’clock in the morning, according to the handwritten scrawl) through the death of George Burwell III on Oct. 24, 1946. Librarians also direct researchers to the vast collection of digitized correspondence and manuscripts, such as the will of Joseph Ashlin, a Virginian who freed his slaves William, Salley, Frances and Cyrus Barrett, conceding, in a sort of posthumous confession, that they were his biological children.
For all the data available online, however, many records exist solely as hard copies or, at best, on rolls of microfilm. Such is the case with one of the gems of Rockefeller Library’s holdings, the courthouse records of York County, Va. Unlike many other Virginia courthouse records, York County’s did not burn in the Civil War, so they provide archival information back to the 17th century.
Professional genealogist Pamela Boyer Sayre, who has taught genealogical courses at universities around the country, explains that she sometimes encounters enthusiastic genealogists who have been on a years-long quest to fill their family trees. “They’ve never been to a courthouse, haven’t visited a library since high school and that’s worrisome,” says Sayre.
“The two strategies [online and hard copies] must complement one another,” she says.
Some of the information online is flat out wrong, and the mistakes get repeated so often people assume they are accurate. What’s more, people can miss telling details by failing to visit repositories.
Sayre gives the example of a direct ancestor from Mecklenburg County, Va., who mustered in with American troops at Williamsburg and fought during the American Revolution. Just after the war, he inexplicably vanished from the historical record for four decades, resurfacing in Tennessee in 1825. He left no record of tax payments and eluded census takers. Sayre spanned the gap with a discovery she made at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. Her ancestor had been living all along (and hiding” from his 21st-century descendant) in North Carolina.
“You’re not just looking for when an ancestor lived and died. You’re looking for their life story, their context and that’s what a lot of these records provide,” says Sayre. “Court records are an example of something generally not digitized, but they can tell a lot about a person. Whether they were rich or poor, or what kind of person they were. Most of our ancestors may not have been literate, but they were litigious and would sue a brother or sister for five acres that weren’t left to them.”
Still, online resources are a great starting point. Basic vital information that may have once demanded lots of time and money now can be completed at a fraction of the cost. That allows family historians to save money going deeper, filling in the rough details with facts revealed by hard-to-reach records.
Many researchers devote their efforts to the tougher genealogical puzzles; this is especially true for those whose ancestors’ lives were little documented and whose paper trail is therefore relatively meager. Registers of indentured servants that came to America, for instance, are indexed and searchable at the website Virtual Jamestown. Several websites offer tips and techniques for delving into the challenge of African American genealogy.
Family historians are not alone in their quest to uncover a personal past. Social media teems with groups whose members have a shared interest in one line of inquiry.
When author Sue Eisenfeld was researching her book, “Shenandoah; A Story of Conservation and Betrayal,” she searched, often with frustration, for people who had once lived in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains but had been removed from their homes to make way for Shenandoah National Park. Only after her book had been accepted for publication did she find groups on Facebook, such as one called Blue Ridge Genealogy, which provided a source and narratives that before took weeks to collect.
And when Megan Smolenyak helped organize a family reunion in her ancestral Osturna, Slovakia in 1996, one of her frustrations was that so little of the country was wired for the Internet. Smolenyak now uses Facebook to communicate regularly with Osturna’s mayor.
Another consequence of expanded capabilities has been surprising discoveries, such as what genetic genealogists euphemistically call a “non-paternity event.” In other words, a usually-unsuspecting man raises a baby who is not his biological child. It happens with uncomfortable regularity; modern geneticists peg the number at about one to two percent of births, and genealogical DNA tests are confirming that it happened just as often with ancestors we would like to think were prim, upright and faithful.
Research can now yield information that would have confounded previous genealogists. The names of ancestors who fought and died in wars are set in stone at cemeteries all across the country. It turns out that many of those headstones, however, are incorrect. National Park Service officials who oversee Yorktown National Cemetery found upwards of 70 inaccurate Civil War-era headstones among the 2,000 wartime veterans buried there. Maine Private Dummer Sylvester’s marker switches his first and last name. Other graves misspell a name or misidentify a regiment. Similar issues befall burial places all across the country, including Arlington National Cemetery. The errors are, perhaps, understandable given the scale of interments necessary during a war, but the mistaken transcriptions had been just enough to throw off family members looking for an elusive great-grandparent. Now digital databases offer the advantage of cross-referencing a few different sources.
And it’s these relatives that family historians are discovering, or rediscovering, who give us a better understanding of history. Our ancestors fill out those larger stories that Americans know by heart. Our families may not have earned immortality by virtue of brilliant political leadership or uncommon valor, but they delivered thousands of babies into the world, they took to the backcountry to find greener pastures, they suffered under slavery. Our ancestors drove history, and history drove them. They say as much about the human story, the human condition as any sweeping saga there is.