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Georgia’s Chief Vann House Historic Site
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The remains of the chimney of her grandmother and great-aunt’s house in Great Smoky Mountains National Park can still be seen.
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Georgia’s Chief Vann House Historic Site
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Janann Giles’ mother decorates a wedding cake.
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Katharine Brown’s great-grandmother Nellie Chancellor, c. 1885.
Genealogy. The word conjures up images of dusty libraries, dry courthouse records, endless hours with microfilm and crumbling documents.
But talk to anyone researching his or her family and you’ll find an excitement that suggests that genealogy is anything but dry and boring. Technological advances from the internet to genetics are changing the nature of genealogical research (but the dusty libraries and courthouses and microfilm are still essential resources). In the Southern Appalachian mountains, following the branches of a family tree may turn up Revolutionary War soldiers, Confederate generals, slave owners or slaves.
The Sesquicentennial of the Civil War has sparked a new interest in family research, prompting such things as the East Tennessee Historical Society’s recent Civil War genealogy workshop, a daylong event in August that featured Dr. George K. Schweitzer, who comes at genealogy from the angles of history and chemistry – he has Ph.D.s in both. Genealogy, he says, is “my indulgence.” (He’s resident genealogist at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.)
Schweitzer first became interested in genealogy when he was doing research in chemistry, and came across a minor figure who shared the same name. “I got curious.” And then what he describes as “the addiction” took hold.
Were they related? “No!” he says, and busts out laughing. “Isn’t that great?”
And it is. That’s part of the lure of genealogy – it answers questions, reveals stories, connects generations, solves mysteries – and sometimes creates new ones.
At the August workshop, Schweitzer lectured specifically on genealogy related to the Civil War.
“We’re all still Confederate and we’re all still Union,” he says, asserting that the war, in many ways, never ended – for one thing, “the slavery problem was solved by the Civil War, but the racism problem wasn’t.” And because the reverberations of the war still carry, a century and a half later, we feel “a strange and unique resonance” when we discover an ancestor who fought in it.
As for research, the Civil War was the first modern war, Schweitzer points out, in that the idea of bureaucracy came into being, and therefore, many, many documents. More so in the Union north, which was the site of much less fighting (and much less destruction). Potential sources may include pension records, letters, newspaper accounts, diaries, regimental histories published after the war by former officers running for political office, official government reports from officers to army headquarters on both sides – in many cases, says Schweitzer, “you can figure out within 20 yards of where a soldier fought.”
“The real story is always more compelling,” says Cherel Henderson, director of the East Tennessee Historical Society. Genealogy sometimes turns up unknown stories, and at other times dispels the stories families have held onto for years, what Henderson calls tradition: “Everyone wants to have a Cherokee princess,” says Schweitzer. “Truth is Cherokee tribes didn’t have any princesses!”
Henderson’s interest in the past appeared when she was a little girl – “I started asking questions when I was about nine or 10.”
In her adulthood, Henderson has used document research to find the evidence to support the stories her grandmother and great-aunt told her. Her research over the years has turned up Civil War soldiers on both sides, and turned up a great-grandfather and a great-great-grandfather, each with two families (one legitimate, one not) – “between those two men, they had 41 kids!”
Those unexpected discoveries don’t bother Henderson, who laughs over the fact that “I’m my own cousin so many times.”
What the research does is connect her with her past. “My great-aunt – where she lived is in the park [Great Smoky Mountains].” The house is gone, but “I can go there and touch that chimney.”
It’s something she sees when she helps others find their own roots (the historical society provides individual assistance besides holding workshops for adults and children). “There’s something about seeing the actual record – you’re touching something that the other person has touched.”
“Every tree branch is another story,” says Randy Collins. Professionally, he’s president and CEO of the Top of Virginia Regional Chamber in Winchester, but his college education was in park administration and history (“I wanted to be a park ranger – my dream job was Harpers Ferry, or Gettysburg, or Antietam”), and a college roommate sparked his earliest interest in genealogy. He put it away for years, and then was re-inspired – interestingly enough, by an Ancestry.com ad during the Super Bowl.
He picked up where he’d left off, digging out his old box of research, and started digging online. “I was able to trace my family roots out in directions I never thought possible,” he says. He discovered not the one Civil War ancestor he’d hoped to find (Andrew Jackson Collins, 56th Virginia infantry, from Albemarle County) but another five in the Civil War and around 20 veterans total in conflicts from the American Revolution to World War II.
“I thought it would be wonderful to be related to a Confederate general,” he says, and as it turns out his father’s mother was a Bragg, and one of her distant cousins was Braxton Bragg – as in Fort Bragg.
For Collins, it also comes down to family: “I tell my children now, you need to spend more time with your grandparents,” he says. “There are certain things that the records can’t tell you.”
Katharine Brown is a genealogist and historian (Ph.D. in history, Johns Hopkins) who lives in Staunton, Va.; she’s taught history, historic preservation, museum studies and genealogy at places including Radford and Hollins universities and Mary Baldwin College. Her family history in Virginia is long, with roots in eastern Virginia – but “I’m not a Pocahontas descendant,” she laughs.
Brown grew up in Parkersburg, W.Va., in a house she inherited and is now restoring. It was built by her great-great-grandfather and his wife, Ellen Charles King, in 1878, after they moved from Virginia and Mississippi, respectively. She feels connected with her great-great-grandmother – “I grew up in her house, I own quilts she made, a lot of her furniture.”
She lost many letters, though, because her grandmother burned them years ago, either trying to clean house, or because she didn’t care for the older woman. Brown, then 10 or 11, salvaged one: “That’s all I have of her, this one letter that fell out of a bag on its way to the incinerator.”
Brown discovered an ancestor who was William Penn’s land agent; one of his daughters married Benedict Arnold, and another married one of George Washington’s closest generals.
She’s done a lot of overseas research into Scotch-Irish ancestry, which can be difficult because so many records were destroyed in the Irish Civil War. She’s found ancestors who “were of all things, Baptist!” she says with a laugh, and ancestors among the first German colonists in Virginia – she and her husband now lead summer genealogy trips to Germany for others descended from the colonies.
You always have to be prepared to find skeletons in the closet,” she says. One of her skeletons was an ancestor who requested (and was granted) permission to cut off the toes of a frequent-runaway slave. “This is part of the story, and it’s the burden you carry.”
Storytelling is her “burden,” but for the most part it’s a joyful one:
“My husband is a family tree maker,” Brown says. What she does as a historian is write the narrative, provide the context, so her descendants “don’t end up with this chart of dates” and no understanding of the people behind them.
Tips for Research
Start with yourself and “work backwards,” says Cherel Henderson. “Don’t go back five or six generations and pick that one famous person. Genealogy works backwards.”
Dr. George Schweitzer agrees. He says there are two questions to answer. First: “Who are the parents? And you keep asking it again and again and again and again until you don’t have an answer.” Second: “How do you know?”
“Genealogy is a great hobby,” says Randy Collins, “but it’s also a bit of a science, in that you have to list your sources, the way a journalist has to.”
“Perservere,” says Katharine Brown, “because it is not necessarily an easy thing to do… you will run into some real stone walls… in spite of those problems, it’s so much fun, so exciting, so rewarding to be this kind of detective… reconnecting with the people who produced you.” –CEM
The Heritage of Family Recipes
More precious than any cookbook is a family’s small metal box, usually found on a kitchen shelf. The box with the handwritten notes – the best recipes gathered through the years. There’s cousin Renita’s squash casserole, Aunt Frenchie’s Teacakes, Grandma Mildred’s cream cheese pound cake. Those recipes are the best, but one day the box is opened to find – the ink has faded on Grandma’s recipe – horrors!
It’s time to recycle the box and create a family cookbook – a culinary family tree.
The simplest way to do this is to write the recipes on sheets of paper, copy and staple; but this is the 21st century. It’s time to use technology to create a personalized cookbook that can be shared with other family members. Here are the basics:
Gather recipes and take notes about what makes each recipe important to your family; the person who gave you the recipe, how the ingredients remind you of a special time, or perhaps it’s the first recipe your mother let you cook by yourself. Do you have a photo of Mother’s Jello-O wedding punch or a personal story about her serving her teacakes at summer socials? It can be serious or humorous. Ask your relatives – does anyone remember the second cousin who rather than measuring, just added the rest of the wine to the roast. Luckily no one was hurt when the oven door exploded.
Organize your recipes into categories. This can be as traditional as snacks, salads, meats, vegetables and desserts, or go creative and divide recipes into generations or branches of your extended family tree.
Proof before you print. It can’t be overstated. There is a difference in tsp and Tbs. Omitting an ingredient will leave relatives questioning if you left it out accidentally or on purpose so no one could cook as well as you do. Relatives don’t want to guess the oven temperature and cooking time; be sure all the details are in the recipe. Make sure your gift of a family cookbook is really a gift.
Finally it’s time to print your contribution to family history. For a few copies you could print at home but if you’re planning on giving it as presents, go to a printing center and have the cookbook printed and bound. While others are spending hours on genealogical searches you can be having the time of your life discovering your family through its food.
When I was a teenager my mother catered weddings. It wasn’t unusual to come home and find two or three wedding cakes around the house in various stages of completion. Supper could wait while a few more roses were added to ramble down the cake. Sadly we have lost her cake recipe but what has endured are three of her favorite punch recipes. The Jell-O recipe – yes Jell-O – enabled her to match the punch to the bride’s color theme simply by changing the flavor of Jell-O she used. – Janann Giles
Janann Giles' Mother's Punch Recipes
3 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups lemon juice
1 large can pineapple juice
3 pkg Jell-O
1 gallon water (or ice and water)
1 quart water
Boil the quart of water to dissolve the sugar and Jell-O. Add the juices. DO NOT REFRIGERATE!
When time to serve, add the gallon water/ice. Makes 2 1/2 gallons or 100 cups of punch.
2 6 oz. cans frozen orange juice
2 6 oz. cans frozen lemonade
2 4/5 quart bottles sauterne wine, chilled
2 large bottles sparkling water
Chilled berries or sliced fruit for garnish
Mix the juices and wine; just before serving, pour in sparkling water. Add ice cubes or blocks of ice and fruits for garnish.
Makes 50 3 oz. servings.
Iced Coffee Punch
2 quarts strong coffee (unsweetened)
1 pint heavy cream (very cold)
1 quart chocolate ice cream
1 pint vanilla ice cream
Mix coffee and cream, both very cold. At last minute, whip and add 1/2 the chocolate ice cream and all the vanilla ice cream.
Save rest of the chocolate ice cream and float on top.
Makes about 12 ice tea glasses.
Do not put in punch bowl until ready to serve.
The internet has not replaced offline research, but it has made some material more accessible. Chuck Sherrill, Tennessee's state librarian and archivist, answered questions via e-mail about internet research:
"I prefer to use sites which include digital scans of actual documents. That way the genealogist knows she or he is looking at essentially the same information that one would see if using those original records in person. I find that Ancestry, Family Search, Footnote and Heritage Quest are the best sites for that sort of data – and would rank them in that order of value for genealogists."
At the same time, he says, "the internet genealogist is likely to miss a great deal of information, because at this point only the 'low-hanging fruit' has been digitized or indexed online. County courthouses and archives are full of additional information not found online. Deeds and court records are probably the most obvious example, but newspapers, letters and diaries and many other treasures are still waiting to be discovered by the researcher who can turn the computer off and explore in the 'real world.'"
Other websites for online research:
Family Tree DNA
Germanna.org (descendants of first German colonists in Virginia)
The National Genealogical Society and the Federation of Genealogical Societies are both online. The National Archives, in Washington, DC and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City are also huge resources.