Yesterday was our local genealogy group’s Family History Support Day. We had a wonderful turnout – larger than ever! The free event matches people with no genealogy experience with a researcher who can help them get started or provide ideas to overcome a family mystery.
A few of the folks I helped were stunned by the results. The DNA testing companies now include a warning but I’m thinking all genealogists might want to do so. Uncovering family secrets is often hard to deal with.
Here’s the 5 pieces of info I uncovered that I had to share with visitors that left them rattled:
1. Cherokee Princess – Her question – What was the name of my great grandma that was a Cherokee princess? A great uncle told the woman that because they were of Native American royalty, they escaped the Trail of Tears and remained in South Carolina. First problem with the legend is that South Carolina wasn’t one of the 9 states that fell under the Removal Act. Most of that region’s Native Americans relocated to Florida and formed the Seminole Tribe. Second problem is the law didn’t exclude any group so even if she was related to a Native American leader, aka “royalty,’ her family wouldn’t have been permitted to remain. Third problem is the Trail of Tears was in the early 1800’s so the family member involved would have been more generations back then a great grandmother. I identified on her maternal line her great grandparents; they were all born and died in South Carolina and were all identified as Black. I recommended DNA to verify if she has Native American ancestry.
2. Only Child – Her question – “My parents divorced when I was small and my mom and I moved from Florida where I was born to New York where I grew up. I think we stayed with a relative in New York but I was small and don’t remember. How can I find out who we stayed with as my mom is deceased and I’m an only child.” Lucky for the woman, this wasn’t difficult to find as she’s in her 80’s so she was in the 1940 US Federal census. What she initially failed to tell me was that she had changed her birth name under which she was enumerated. I first looked for her in New York but didn’t find her. I then looked for her in Florida but she weren’t there. I then did a search without a location and still couldn’t find her. I then looked using her mother’s name and voila – found them in South Carolina (yes, there was a lot of people from South Carolina and Georgia yesterday which isn’t surprising since that’s all the same temperate zones and farmers migrated between those areas). When I showed her the record I thought that the enumerator had mistakenly put her father’s name as hers; that’s when she told me that was her birth name but she had changed it to a more feminine name. I asked about the 11 month old sibling enumerated after her. She was stunned. The sibling had been named after her grandmother who she thought might be the family member they had been living with. I found the grandmother living in the same district with an uncle and his family. I wasn’t able in the short time period to figure out what happened to her sister. She may have died or is still out there having been adopted. It was hard for her to move forward with her initial question since the discovery was made. I found her mother in the 1930 US Federal census living with a family in Florida. The name was familiar to her; it was her great aunt’s family. The cousin had gotten married and divorced and relocated to New York in 1940. Although she wasn’t living with her on enumeration day, it’s likely that was the New York connection. I recommended she get in touch with the woman’s grandchildren as she and her only son are deceased, to see if they have further information.
3. The Reason Grandpa Left Grandma – Her question – “I’d like to find out why my grandfather took my mom away from my grandmother and gave her to my aunt to raise.” This is a tricky question because a family might not have left guardianship records that could tell us what was happening. The grandmother could have been ill – physically or mentally, incarcerated or dead. I didn’t find a death date so I turned to census records to discover where the family was located. Grandma had been born in 1915 in South Carolina. She had told her daughter she remembered living with her parents until right before she started school. That means, she would have been 5-7 years old. The great grandparents and grandma were not found in the 1920 US Federal census anywhere. That’s explainable as supposedly great grandpa was a traveling salesman. The family probably missed being enumerated in their travels. Their circuit was the entire southeast region. I found that great grandpa died in 1922 in South Carolina. I also found that great grandma had another child but it wasn’t with great grandpa – the father’s name was recorded as “DK” (don’t know). That child died soon after he was born in 1921. Although unconfirmed, it’s likely that the great grandparents split up due to great grandmother’s pregnancy from another man. Great grandpa, in poor health and traveling, placed his daughter with his sister’s family to give her stability. The great grandma died in the 1930’s and had resumed using her maiden name. Everyone from that generation are deceased so the real reason may never be uncovered.
4. Darn Those Genes! – Her question – “I’d like to find out about my dad’s side because my parents were divorced and all I know was that he was mean like his dad.” So the counselor in me kicked in to ask her to elaborate on what she meant by the word, “mean.” She said she didn’t remember him but he supposedly was abusive after drinking which he did all the time. I had just begun to try to identify vitals on her father when her cell rang. It was her son calling and by the time she got it out of her purse, she had missed the call. She became quite upset because her son was incarcerated from selling drugs and they could only speak weekly. I asked her if her son was also an alcoholic but that hadn’t been his drug of choice. She mentioned her daughter and adult grandchildren who had no drug issues. She couldn’t understand her son’s life choices. I recommended that when he’s released, the family get their DNA done and upload it to promethease.com. For $5.00 an analysis, the family will be able to identify their health indicators, addiction being one of them. Although genetics alone does not preclude one to make a life choice, it does explain why some have more difficulty then others. She was very appreciative. She had never thought about her father’s influence continuing in his absence. My new genetic slogan – Gone but not forgotten.
5. That’s Not How You Spell It – Her question – “Should I go to Salt Lake City or a library in Minneapolis to find out who my great grandparents were because I can’t find them online? Someone has my family in their tree online but it’s not my people.” The simple answer is – maybe. This woman had a huge binder full of family info which is awesome but the problem was that it was in no order whatsoever. We wasted a lot of time as she tried to find simple information, such as her parent’s vitals. She guessed her mom died in 2011 but it was 2001. She thought her mom had died in one Florida county but it turned out she was in a neighboring county where she had been taken to a specialized hospital. It took us about an hour to get to her grandparents as she shuffled through her binder and would get sidetracked when she came to a picture. Her question then changed to “How can I identify these people?” My advice to her, which I wrote down, was to first organize the binder by generation. Make it into a timeline beginning with birth and going through death of her parents. Buying dividers that were oversized so that she could label the generations for quick info retrieval. I made by hand, a skeletal pedigree chart and explained how to use a group sheet so she could place the group sheet in the front of each section. She had more info, such as death certificates, in her safety deposit box. I recommended she make a copy and include those, too. She was quite upset about the wrong info online. It turns out it wasn’t wrong. She was adamant the surname spelling ended in “son” but the online tree had “sen.” I told her that spelling was optional prior to the last century. Census records showed that her great grandparents did not read or write. Enumerators wrote names phonetically. So, should she go to Salt Lake or Minneapolis? No need to for an answer to the question she had but of course, if she needs to once she organizes what she has.
In five hours, five ah ha moments that shook folks’ core beliefs. Genealogy is definitely not for the faint of heart.