Thursday, March 15, 2018

My Genealogy Journey

Last time, I wrote about my experience at the amazing - even if just a tad overwhelming - RootsTech genealogy conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. This time, I'd like to give you some of the story of how I became interested in genealogy. I'll give an overview of my experience doing research, building trees, and working with DNA.

How did I get interested in genealogy anyway?

Growing up, I knew very few of my extended relatives. To me, my family was - for the most part - just my immediate family (my parents and my sister). My mom told me stories of names that had passed on from generation to generation. I was named for her Uncle Sammy. She was named Patricia after her great-uncle Patrick who was in turn named after one of our distant cousins, the famous Patrick Henry. The story of this connection always stuck with me.

As I grew older, my family (and my understanding of what constitutes family) grew and evolved. I gained step family, a half-brother (what a horrible expression! He's my brother!...we just have different fathers), nieces and a nephew. Friends became family as I became the token American addition to my Bulgarian, Greek, Arab, and Latino friends' families.

After college, I joined Ancestry for a short trial and built up my family tree for as long as I could. Then I went to Graduate School (Orthodox Christian seminary) and put family research on hold. In June 2014, I got back on Ancestry and within a few days bought my first autosomal DNA test. In the coming months, I bought three more as I discovered how much DNA helped me in my research. I was hooked!

What has my research looked like?

At first, I relied on online digitized records because I could find so much sitting in the comfort of my own home. But I realized after a while that I needed to get out of my house and do traditional in-person research.

So I took a visit home to Virginia to visit the Powhatan County Circuit Court Clerk to view wills, deeds, and marriage records. I visited the Library of Virginia to find records held only there. Over time, I discovered the goldmine that is the chancery database on the Library of Virginia website. I've used Chronicling America as a free newspaper source (I recommend using US News Map as a convenient search tool for this great resource!)

I've researched at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society's library and archives to find records relating to my family's deep history in the baptist communities of Central Virginia. I've visited graveyards and churches to collect information. I've spoken with older generations to collect clues that might help in my research. I've visited the National Archives in DC. I've searched and I've searched and I've searched!

Building and developing my family trees

My personal family tree has 6,760 individuals in it today, with 16,839 records attached, and 427 photos. Since I'm not married and I don't have children of my own, I've included my brother in law's family within this tree since my tree represents my nieces' heritage as well.

The next most extensive tree I've developed for my friends' family has 1,096 people, and another tree has 558 individuals. In total, I've worked on fourteen trees - nine public and five private.

When I was first getting started in 2010, I was quick to believe other online trees. As I did my own research working to validate or invalidate those trees, I discovered how easy it is to put the wrong information in a tree. Today, I see other public trees as simple hints or suggestions - not as evidence of facts.

Using DNA

I mentioned earlier how important DNA was in giving me the necessary push to get me hooked on doing genealogy and family research. But what was it about DNA that got me so excited?

Sure, at first the ethnicity estimate - an approximation of the admixture I've inherited from my ancestors - was a draw for me to take an autosomal DNA test with AncestryDNA. But then I saw how I could use DNA evidence to prove or disprove family connections to other test takers already in the DNA database. I was able to push my tree back further by connecting with other DNA cousins. I was able to break down walls in my research, and better yet, connect with distant (yet DNA proven) genetic cousins!

Today, I am an admin to twenty autosomal DNA kits on AncestryDNA, and one on 23andme. I administer fifteen of these DNA kits on GEDmatch. Additionally, I work on two Y-DNA kits on FamilyTreeDNA.

With DNA, I've learned more about who my ancestors *actually* were. With Y-DNA, I've even figured out that my Williams men may have actually been Blackwells or Traylors (more to come in another blog post!) With DNA, I've helped a woman find her biological father. With DNA, and through traditional record research, I've solved another woman's adoption mystery. DNA is truly an awesome tool in the genealogical tool kit!

My areas of focus

My family is nearly entirely from Virginia. One branch of my family came from what is now Germany during and prior to the 1860s. Another branch came to Petersburg, Virginia from Indiana in the 1890s. Besides those two branches, my family hails (with a few outliers) from these areas in Virginia: Halifax, Mecklenburg, Brunswick, Dinwiddie, Chesterfield, Powhatan, Richmond, Louisa, Hanover, Charles City, Isle of Wight. My focus has been on Powhatan County, but I have done research in or on all of these places.

Additionally, I've done extensive research on Greek families in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I've learned a great deal on Greek genealogy in the process! I've also researched several African American families from Virginia - particularly from Powhatan, Louisa, and from Norfolk. I find African American research to be some of the most rewarding research I do today because so many assume it to be impossible. But it's not!'s just tough work!


In just a few years, I went from knowing very little about my family to being one of my family history experts. I've helped others learn about their ancestors, to ignite a spark in them to discover more, and I've connected others to the first biological family they've ever known. There are so many resources available to us today to connect to our family, to research our roots, and to discover who we are. My research has connected me not only to my ancestors, but to family living around the world.

I hope you'll stick around to learn more about how you too can encounter your ancestors, and to remember the past made present.

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