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Who Do I Think I Am?

Last semester, one of the classes I took was on American history, the early period (to 1877). Along the way, I got interested in what my ancestors might have been doing during the events that we were studying, so I decided to jump back into a "bit" of genealogical research. I’d done a bit of poking into my family history several years ago, and I have access to a good body of work by other family members, including two books on the Wilkey family (my maternal grandmother’s family) on which to piggy-back my own efforts. Then, when my grandmother died in April, and I went down to L.A., I found a bunch of photos and other information that my mom had, including some genealogical interviews she did with various family members. Combine this with a membership at Ancestry.com, and a "bit" of research has turned into a "bit" of an obsession (but a good summer project), and I’ve made a lot of progress in a relatively short time.

It’s fascinating to look back at these family stories – stories that have come to me from other family members, as well as the stories I am piecing together for myself by looking at the paper trail left behind – census records, death certificates, and the like. I am also blessed with a lot of family photos - especially from my mom’s side of the family, but a fair few from my dad’s side as well - and I’m enjoying the way the photos help me to clarify things I’m finding in documents, or vice versa. Also, it’s cool to put faces to the events that I know about – I found, for example, a photo of my great-grandmother’s brother, Jesse. The story I associate with him is when he arrived at her farm with his horse and cart to load up all her possessions in a single day when she decided to divorce her husband (my great-grandfather).

Every day I do this, there are new discoveries, and it can be really exciting to make a breakthrough. Here's an example: One of my great-grandfathers was a man named Wilson Edd St. John, but other than his name and a few details, I knew almost nothing about him. He was only married to my great-grandmother for a short time (yes, he’s the one the grandmother mentioned above divorced), and my aunt had told me that he was a school teacher and farmer. I also knew that they lived in Missouri. I wanted to take this branch of the family back farther (it’s the name I carry, after all), but wasn’t having too much success. So, I decided to try and use what they call the “cluster” method – looking for patterns of names within the family. I had found a census record for an “Eddie W” St. John with a sister named Mary, and brother Francis J. It seems like it was very common on census reports for first and middle names to be switched (I get the feeling that calling children by their middle names was extremely common, especially if the child was formally named after one of the parents). So, if “Eddie W” was indeed my Wilson Edd, that census report contained the names of his parents. I followed the trail of both siblings, and tracked down a Mary who married a man named Childers. She seemed likely to be Wilson Edd’s sister, but how could I be sure?

Then I found something amazing on the census form, which made me believe I was certainly on the right track. On one of the census forms which listed Mary and her husband and family, I noticed that the name of the enumerator was non other than . . . *drumroll please* . . . W. E. St. John! Since he was the one filling out the form, I was able to match his handwriting with the signature on his passport application, which I’d found earlier, and sure enough – this W.E. St. John was my great-grandfather. Not only did have evidence that this woman Mary was living in the right location to be Wilson Edd’s sister, but I also learned an interesting fact about the working live of my great-grandfather.

A few days later, I found the icing on the cake – the corroboration I needed to feel certain that my research had led me in the right direction. I was scanning some photos of my grandfather, Ercell Edd (Wilson Edd’s son), and I found several which were labeled as being taken at the "Childers house.” In other words, the home of my grandfather’s Aunt, who really did marry a man named Childers. I had found the right sister Mary, after all, and now I also had the names of my great-great grandparents (from that original census report): Joseph and Nancy St. John.

I have other really cool stories of things I’ve discovered (and plan to write about them in the future) - it’s like living an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are,” but without the travel budget. Equally interesting stories, though. So far, I’ve found several ancestors who fought (and one who died) in the American Revolution, and a relative living in a slave state who fought for the Union during the Civil War (he lived in Kentucky, so that wasn’t unexpected – they were one of the states that didn’t secede). I haven’t found anyone who arrived on the Mayflower (haha!), but I do have several branches going back almost that far, including someone who may have been the child of a couple who did sail on the Mayflower, but died during the voyage. Not sure why the son wasn’t with them, but if he really turns out to be my ancestor (I’m working through slowly to try and verify all the possible connections), I’m sure glad he stayed home, or I wouldn’t be here. :D

That’s all my dad’s family; on my mom’s side, her ancestors were almost exclusively Polish, and came here during the first decade of the 20th century. Tracking down information on them is much more difficult so far, in terms of online resources, but I do have a wealth of photos and family stories to put together, which give me a pretty complete picture of the family history here in the U.S. Eventually, I’ll want to investigate the lives of the ancestors who lived in Poland, but that’s still a little ways off.

So far, all of my own research has been done online. There really is a ton of fantastic information available over the internet, but at some point, those options will be exhausted and I’ll need to move on to finding other sources. For now, though, I’m still finding new information every day as I work back through the various branches of my family.

If anyone is interested in taking a peek at my family tree as it stands so far, my username at Ancestry is herebedragons66. I think it’s possible to log on as a guest without paying for an account, so you can view public trees. Look at the “St. John/Szczepanek/Holeman/Kasprzyk” tree – that’s the one with the information I’ve been able to verify with census data and other records. The other tree has a bunch of crazy stuff I’ve culled from the trees of other people on Ancestry, and some of it is incredibly dodgy (like the part where I’m a descendant of William the Conqueror. Hey, I suppose it’s possible, but for now, it’s yet to be proven).

Keep an eye out for more genealogy stories. I think blogging them will be a good way for me to keep track of the research I’m doing.

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Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
macloudt
Jun. 28th, 2010 08:04 pm (UTC)
Yay, Wendy posted! :D

It sounds as if you're having a great time looking up your family tree. It's such an interesting thing to do. Let us know if or when you can confirm that Mayflower connection (or lack of connection!).
tmkr
Jun. 29th, 2010 01:41 am (UTC)
That sounds really interesting! What a nice way to spend the summer. :)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
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