Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Following Leads to Church Records

Detail from photo by Nathan Dumlao

Last time, I wrote about researching the clergy listed in our ancestors' marriage records. Since then, I had the opportunity to research at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society (VBHS) on the campus of the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. In this post, I'll share how I made new discoveries about Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams, my brick wall ancestors, through research in church records.

1. What church(es) did my ancestors attend?

After finding the names of clergy in marriage records and doing preliminary research on those clergymen, I was able to make a list of potential churches Joseph and Ona Ann may have attended. As all but one were baptist churches, I decided to focus first on those baptist communities in the area this couple lived. Since they lived in Powhatan, but on the border with Chesterfield County, I focused on the southeastern corner of Powhatan County and the southwest corner of Chesterfield County.

I determined from this research that my family had a connection with Skinquarter Baptist Church in the Moseley area of Chesterfield County, Virginia. I also knew that my father grew up at Graceland Baptist Church, whose Sunday School began in 1888 with the then pastor of Skinquarter Baptist. So I had good reason to research Skinquarter. I also knew that Old Powhatan Baptist Church was the resting place of some of my father's other family. I decided I'd see what the VBHS might have on Old Powhatan Baptist too.

2. Research at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society

The first step of doing research at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society is to call ahead and set up an appointment to view the records. The VBHS is an amazing resource for anyone researching Baptist churches in Virginia. The communities I'm interested in are part of the Middle District Baptist Association. This is important to know because the various churches belonging to this association met regularly over the years. Each of these district meetings has minutes that can be viewed and studied, in addition to the minute books for many of those local communities.

I started with Skinquarter Baptist Church. The VBHS has minute books for 1824-1844, 1868-1879, and 1880-1896. I scanned the pages for familiar surnames - particularly those of my ancestors and pastors who I had previously noted. Though I came away with notes on pastors and various members, I didn't find the names of any of my ancestors. I did, however, learn that Skinquarter Baptist Church left the Middle District Baptist Association during the years 1836-1848. Several times, I noticed there being some sort of conflict with the neighboring community of Mt. Hermon Baptist Church.

Feeling slightly discouraged, I moved on to Old Powhatan Baptist Church. The VBHS holds the 1845-1900 minute book for this community. Here, I saw many more familiar names. I saw relatives listed from other parts of my family, and finally I found Joseph and Ona Ann!

I learned that Joseph Williams and Oney (Ona Ann) Williams had been received as members at Old Powhatan Baptist Church by letter from Mt. Hermon Baptist Church on 17 July 1859. Joseph Williams also attended church meetings through at least May 1875. Next, I turned to the 1835-1854 minute book for Mt. Hermon Baptist Church. I hit gold! I discovered that Joseph Williams was baptized by Elder Samuel Dorset on 21 August 1842 and "Mrs. Joseph Williams" was baptized on 1 September 1842. Joseph Williams was then an active participant at Mt. Hermon from 17 September 1842 through at least 11 February 1854.

3. Follow-up research

I was absolutely thrilled to have clear evidence of membership at two communities in the area: Mt. Hermon Baptist Church and Old Powhatan Baptist Church. And more than that, I now have the dates of the baptisms of both Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams! But I wanted to know more. What brought them there? What could I learn about them based on their chosen communities?

I learned that Mt. Hermon Baptist Church was formed on 3 June 1835 from members at Skinquarter Baptist Church. The community at Skinquarter voted for their next pastor from between Rev. Edmund Goode and Rev. Samuel Dorset from New Jersey. Rev. Edmund Goode was against mission work, while Rev. Samuel Dorset was pro-missions and had an emphasis on Sunday School. The majority voted for Goode, and the minority left with Rev. Samuel Dorset to form Mt. Hermon. It was there, seven years later, that my ancestors were baptized.

The Daily Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia, 17 June 1878.
I found an article in The Daily Dispatch describing the history of Skinquarter Baptist as well as the disagreement the community had with the founders of Mt. Hermon. A similar story is told in the biographic sketch of Rev. Samuel Dorset found in Virginia Baptist Ministers, Third Series published in 1912. Here, I learned that my ancestors chose in Rev. Samuel Dorset a pastor "described as 'well informed, sound in doctrine, and liberal in his views'" and a church community that "committed themselves to missions, Sunday schools, temperance work, and an educated ministry."

4. How far did my ancestors travel for church?

By researching land deeds and studying 19th century and modern land plats for Powhatan County, I know that my Williams family lived on Moseley Road in Powhatan County. I also know the location of a family cemetery on that same property. By using the location of the family cemetery as the approximate location of the Williams homestead, I made a map with Google Maps along with the locations of Skinquarter Baptist, Old Powhatan Baptist, and Mt. Hermon. 

A. Family Cemetery, B. Skinquarter, C. Old Powhatan, D. Mt. Hermon
All three churches are roughly equidistant from the family cemetery. By using modern roads, it is a 4 mile trip from the cemetery to Mt. Hermon, and a 6 mile trip to both Skinquarter and Old Powhatan. In the 19th century, travel would have been on much rougher roads and by horse and carriage. That my ancestors made church attendance a priority - as well as participation in church meetings recorded in minute books - despite the distance speaks to their determination and commitment. 

Map showing border of Powhatan County and Chesterfield County

I have been researching Joseph Williams and his wife Ona Ann Adams for years, but much of their story has remained a mystery to me. By noting ministers in marriage records, and following through in researching those ministers and their church communities, I was able to find my ancestors in church records. I have specific dates for when my ancestors were baptized and joined two local communities. I even know now how the Dorset area of Powhatan County got its name - from my ancestor's beloved pastor from New Jersey! I grew up driving past Dorset and Mt. Hermon, and I went to high school next door to Old Powhatan Baptist Church - all the while never knowing my family's connection to these places. Little by little, this little hometown of mine is proving to be home indeed!

Have you ever researched church records? How could church records give you a clearer picture of your ancestors?

Join me next time as we continue to encounter ancestors through family history and remember the past made present!

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Discoveries Waiting to be Made in Marriage Records

When I get stuck at a brick wall, I try to find a creative way to get over it. After I've used census and vital records, and then descendancy and DNA research, I look for clues in records - both new and already used - that might give me a step up. Recently, I had an aha moment after visiting the Powhatan Circuit Court to gather some copies of marriage licenses. I realized that I've been overlooking a lot of clues! So this time, I'd like to share how marriage records can point us in new and interesting directions in our research. Maybe your next discovery is just waiting to be made in a marriage record!

1. Locate the marriage records

There are many types of marriage records made over the years in different parts of the country, and there are also various places these records can be found. Online, you can find copies of original marriage records along with indexes. In person, you can locate marriage records in local or state archives.

In the modern age of genealogical research, we can often settle for (or accept as sufficient, whatever the case may be) the indexes that are available online. There are several problems that can arise with indexes, however. Firstly, indexes are handwritten or typed transcriptions of other records. Secondly, online indexes are themselves transcriptions of those transcriptions. So if we rely on online indexes, we're likely accepting the high probability of there being human error between the event itself and the record we have of that event. So how do we get around this problem, if that's even possible?

We need to check the local archives to see if marriage registers or original marriage licenses are available. In the case of Powhatan County, there are both marriage registers as well as marriage licenses available (for many but not all years). So what was I able to find in these marriage records?

2. Details in marriage records

When looking at the earliest "Register of Marriages" in Powhatan County, there are several columns of information provided: date of bond, name of husband, name of wife, parents or guardian of husband, parents or guardian of wife, security and witnesses, and minister. In most cases for Powhatan, the parents or guardian of the husband are not listed. Additionally, the minister is often not listed in the register.

For marriage registers in the latter part of the 19th century, additional information is available: age of husband and wife, whether the parties are single or widowed, the places of their birth and current residence, the names of their parents, the occupation of husband, and the name of the person performing the marriage ceremony. But remember, this record is also a transcription of other (possibly) available records. So we should always seek out the marriage licenses to see if the names and other information have been properly transcribed.

Once we locate the marriage licenses, we might be tempted to look only at names, dates, and places. What else matters, right? Potentially very helpful to your research are those other bits of information provided in the licenses: the occupation of the husband, the precise location the marriage occurred, and the name of the minister. So for this post, let's see what we can figure out about our ancestors by paying attention to their minister.

3. Finding our ancestors' ministers

Let's see what I found on my Williams family from Powhatan. I looked first for the minister who married my earliest known Williams ancestors (Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams) as well as the ministers for the marriages of their children. I also looked for the marriage record of James H. Williams, a man from Powhatan who I have suspected may be a brother (or cousin) to Joseph Williams. In the course of searching for these records in the circuit court, I also found the marriage records of several other Williams men I have noted in earlier research.

The marriage register does not list the minister for Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams, and I haven't been able to access their license from 1838. However, based on the dates listed in the marriage register, I was able to find the marriage licenses for three of their children. The eldest child, Eliza W. Williams, was married to Archer Hoye on 5 July 1855 by Rev. Joseph Goode. Emmaline Williams was married to Benjamin Alfred Gary on 4 October 1865 by Rev. Joseph Goode. Joseph Edward Williams was married to Mary Jane Barley on 27 July 1881 by Rev. B. H. Dupuy.

Eliza W. Williams was married by Rev. Joseph Goode on 5 July 1855 in Powhatan

What about some other Williamses from the county? The marriage license for James H. Williams shows that he married Polenia Ann Utley on 26 November 1874 by Rev. Joseph Goode. Also, the son of James H. Williams (by a previous wife) named William Joseph Williams was married to Rebecca B. Faudree on 22 September 1862 by Rev. Joseph Goode. Another Williams man, the son of Henry Williams named George Madison Williams, was married to Mary Elizabeth Richardson on 11 April 1855 by Rev. Joseph Goode.

Joseph Edward Williams was married by Rev. B. H. Dupuy on 27 July 1881 in Powhatan

Are you seeing a pattern? Five of the six marriages were all performed by a Rev. Joseph Goode. These may be the same man, or they could be more than one man with the same name. These marriages range from April 1855 to November 1874. Only one was performed by another man, a Rev. B. H. Dupuy. So who were these two ministers?

4. Why discover our ancestors' ministers?

Why would I be interested in my ancestor's ministers? If, as I've demonstrated above, there is a pattern (ie. multiple family members or possible family members using the same minister) then it might suggest that there was a family church. Many denominations keep records of baptisms, marriages, membership records, deaths and burials, and even minute books. By determining our ancestors' ministers, we can not only paint a more precise picture of their every day lives, but we might even find yet undiscovered records through church archives.

5. Case Study: Rev. Joseph Goode

The signature of Rev. Joseph Goode from the marriage record of Eliza W. Williams

I started my search on Ancestry for "Joseph Goode" in Powhatan County with an estimated birth of 1820 (assuming he was at least 35 when he performed the marriage of Eliza W. Williams in 1855). I found a marriage record of a Joseph Goode to Emaline Bowles on 18 November 1833 in Powhatan. Knowing this could be one of many men with the same name, I followed this path for a bit. I next found Joseph and Emaline Goode living in upper Chesterfield County in 1850. He was listed then as a farmer. I then find Joseph and Emaline in 1860, with him still listed as a farmer, living in Southern District of Chesterfield County. When I found them again in 1870 in Chesterfield, with him still listed as a farmer, I started to lose faith he's the right man. Shouldn't he be listed as a minister? Finally, in the 1880 census, I find a Joseph Goode who is a widower and a preacher living in the Clover Hill District of Chesterfield. All four of these records give him an approximate year of birth as 1812 or 1813.

There is also an 1880 census document available called the "Supplemental Schedules, Nos. 1 to 7, for the Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes" that lists Joseph Goode in Chesterfield. It shows that he has suffered from "melancholia" for one year, since he was 66 years old. It also shows that he requires to be often kept locked under lock and key at night. When I go back to the 1880 census, it shows that he had been unemployed for that entire census year and he is marked as insane. I then find a death record for a Joseph Goode, a farmer, who died in 1881 in Chesterfield, the son of Joseph and Judith, and the widower of Emeline Goode. So it seems this might be my family's pastor, who worked as a farmer and preacher until his life ended as a widower suffering from depression. What more might I find on him?

After doing a Google search for ""Joseph Goode" pastor Chesterfield Virginia", the first result is for a book in Google Books from 1887. The book is called "Virginia Cousins: A Study of the Ancestry and Posterity of John Goode of Whitby" by George Brown Goode. On page 104, I find a description of a Rev. Joseph Goode who joined Skinquarter Baptist Church in Chesterfield County in 1796. He lived from 4 April 1776 to 13 October 1823 and was married to Judith Watkins (the daughter of Rev. Benjamin Watkins of Powhatan) in 1796. Since the marriages I've been researching occur from 1855 to 1874, I know this can't be my Joseph Goode. But, I recall (as I mentioned above) that Joseph Goode's parents were Joseph and Judith. Could Rev. Joseph Goode's father also have been Rev. Joseph Goode? As I read further on page 104, I see that one of the sons of Rev. Joseph Goode and Judith Watkins was another Rev. Joseph Goode. It reads, "Rev. Joseph, m. Miss Bowles of Powhatan, Baptist Minister and farmer in Chesterfield Co., near Genito: insane in 1880."

Excerpt from p. 104 of "Virginia Cousins" by George Brown Goode

This one page of a book written in 1887 confirms my research and also shows me that my family had a strong connection to Skinquarter Baptist Church. Perhaps the younger Rev. Joseph Goode wasn't the preacher at Skinquarter as his father was, but he certainly was working in the Genito area where my Williams family lived, and down the street from Skinquarter Baptist Church. This tells me I next need to do research on Skinquarter Baptist Church at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society in Richmond, Virginia. Perhaps I will find there records of my Williams family's baptisms or other membership records.

6. Case Study: Rev. B. H. Dupuy

The signature of Rev. B. H. Dupuy from the marriage record of Joseph Edward Williams

After finding so many records of my Williams family members being married by Rev. Joseph Goode, I was fascinated by the fact that my own ancestor, Joseph Edward Williams, did not get married by him when he married Mary Jane Barley in 1881. Instead, he was married by Rev. B. H. Dupuy. As I found out through my research above, Rev. Joseph Goode had passed away the year before. So was Rev. B. H. Dupuy another pastor of Skinquarter Baptist Church? Or was he perhaps the pastor of Mary Jane Barley's family?

Since I knew that Rev. B. H. Dupuy was serving in Powhatan in 1881, I first searched the 1880 census for Powhatan County for a B. H. Dupuy (hopefully listed as a preacher or minister) born around 1845 (which would make him around 35 in 1880). And voila! I found him! Benjamin H. Dupuy, born about 1845, was living in Macon District of Powhatan County in 1880 with his wife, two children, and his brother. And even better? He's listed as a preacher! I next find him in 1900 in Marion, Crittenden, Kentucky with his wife and now seven children born between Virginia, Missouri, and Mississippi. In 1910, he's listed as a Doctor of Divinity living in Lake City, Columbia, Florida with his wife and three children, and by 1920, he's a widower living in Leesburg, Lake County, Florida with his son. It's also worthy to note that in the 1910 census he's listed as a Confederate veteran. Finally, I find a record through FindAGrave of a Rev. B. H. Dupuy in Leesburg, Lake County, Florida who passed away in 1926. While the FindAGrave profile for his burial lists him as Rev. Benjamin Hunter Dupuy, his grave simply reads Rev. B. H. Dupuy. It also mentions that he was a Confederate soldier in 1863 and a Presbyterian Minister in 1876.

Next, I did another Google search: this time for "Benjamin H Dupuy Powhatan Presbyterian". The first result is a digitized copy of "The Huguenot Bartholomew Dupuy and His Descendants" by Rev. B. H. Dupuy, Pastor of the Presbyterian Church, Beverly, W. VA. published in 1908 in Louisville, Kentucky. Could this be the same Rev. B. H. Dupuy who married my ancestors?

When I do a page search (Ctrl f) for "Benjamin H Dupuy" in this book, I find that pages 207 through 209 are for a Rev. Benjamin Hunter Dupuy. It shows that he was a Confederate soldier who volunteered in May 1863 and was engaged in the battle of Gettysburg on July 2-3, 1863. He graduated from Hampden-Sidney College in 1873 and Union Theological Seminary in 1876. He was ordained in August 1876 by the Presbytery of East Hanover and was the "Pastor of the Powhatan and Stated Supply of the Willis churches, Va., 1876-83" (p. 208). It also mentions that he had been a pastor in Tennessee, Missouri, Texas, Mississippi, Kentucky, and at the time of this book he was the pastor in Beverly, West Virginia. But is this the same man as the author? Well, page 209 reads, "A frequent writer for the Church papers and author of this volume." I guess that's a yes! It also confirms that his whole name is Benjamin Hunter Dupuy.

I then discovered through some more internet sleuthing that Powhatan Presbyterian Church later became known as Providence Presbyterian Church. Providence Presbyterian Church (Powhatan, Virginia) church records, 1825-1967 are available online at FamilySearch, as well as at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond. (You can guess where I'll be exploring soon!)


If we're doing genealogical research as a simple discovery of facts, of dates and names and places, we're only going to see what we want to find. But if we recognize that we're about discovering and encountering our ancestors, then we will want to discover some of what (and who) gave richness to their lives. Marriage records provide a window not only into the facts of an event, but can also show us who our ancestors let into the most intimate of life's celebrations.

My research helped me see that Rev. Joseph Goode and Rev. Benjamin Hunter Dupuy had meaningful relationships with my ancestors. They were more than ministers of a marriage; they were their pastors and community leaders. Their relationships with my family help point me to further research - both in Baptist and Presbyterian church records - and give me a sense of the religious diversity of my family. It also causes me to ask other questions. Were the Williamses members at both Skinquarter Baptist and Powhatan Presbyterian? Was the Williams family Baptist while the Barley family was Presbyterian? How did this difference in faith impact the dynamics within the children of Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams?

Marriage records hold clues just waiting to be discovered that will point you to the next research questions for your genealogical research. What have you discovered from marriage records for your ancestors? Have you ever researched your ancestors' ministers?

By researching marriage records and discovering my ancestors' pastors, I've also encountered my ancestors themselves, remembering the past made present. I hope you'll join me next time on this journey of discovery!

Monday, June 18, 2018

My Interview with Faces of NextGen Live!

Y'all! I'm pretty excited about something coming up tonight, 18 June 2018. I'm going to be interviewed by Eric Wells on Faces of NextGen Live!

You can view my interview live at 7pm CST or 8pm EST on the NextGen Genealogy Network YouTube page.

What is NextGen Genealogy Network, you ask? It's a network of young genealogists (those between 18 and 50) founded in 2013. You can connect with the NextGen Genealogy Network by visiting their website or by following them on Twitter.

I hope you can join us for the conversation tonight! If you're busy and can't make it, I hope you will check back at the link above to view the conversation at another time. It'll be a great opportunity to get to know me a little better. You can even ask me a question to answer on air!

See y'all tonight!

Research and Family for Father's Day Weekend

Being a perfectionist can, at times, make genealogical research a tad more frustrating. I want to be able to close the door on one story so I can move on to the next. I want to have a conclusion to a particular research question before reporting back on my research. I want to know the answers before sharing what I've done. But invariably that just keeps me from writing, and this can lead to wandering around in more mental circles that could have been avoided....had I just written it out!

So in lieu of more procrastination, I decided to report on some of the research I've been doing and how I'm hoping it will bear fruit in my Williams of Powhatan family riddle.

The beauty of living two hours away from the area where many of my ancestors lived is that I can go back often to do research in both county and state archives. I get to do some research and visit family in the same trip - I can encounter the departed and the living in one weekend. What a gift! So as I plan a potential trip, I make sure to jam as much into my schedule as possible. And then I accept that I'll probably be running a bit behind schedule as the records keep me turning "just one more page!"

So here's how I got the most out of my Father's Day weekend.

1. Planning

Whenever I go on a trip, I know that if I'm going to get the most out of my time, I need to be prepared. Where will I be going? What records do I need to view and which records are a priority over others? Who do I need to schedule to meet up with?

For this past weekend, I decided I'd focus on obtaining copies of marriage records (rather than just marriage index records) as well as some copies of some more recent land deeds from Powhatan County. This would mean I'd need to spend some time at the courthouse in the archive section of the Powhatan County Circuit Court. 

I always make sure to plan time to visit the Library of Virginia when I go to Richmond. There's just so much there! Last time I visited, I went through a whole box of unprocessed records from the mid to late 19th century. There is a wealth of little known records there, and most are available for public viewing in the manuscript room. I made the decision to limit my research this trip to the Powhatan County Order Books for the 1890s. I first visited the Library of Virginia website and found the list of all Powhatan County Microfilm records. Next, I found the reel numbers for the appropriate order books I needed and wrote those details down to take with me.

Lastly, I planned my schedule around when I could meet up with family. Lunch with a cousin, coffee with another, and some quality time with my dad were the priority. Research was plugged in around family. Family is what it's all about, y'all!

2. Research

There's a saying that the record you need is usually in the recordset that burned in a courthouse fire or the one that happens to be missing. Or more optimistically, it's usually the last record in the pile you will spend hours combing through. Well, the latter was my experience this past Friday. I was going through piles of unorganized 1870s marriage certificates and finally found the one I was looking for second from the bottom! I was able to leave the courthouse on Friday with six records I needed, and was only twenty minutes late to my lunch with a cousin. Like I said, be open to being late when setting a schedule that includes research.

On Saturday, I took my regular trip to the Library of Virginia. I spent two hours looking over a reel of microfilm for Powhatan Order Books from the 1890s. I'll report back in an upcoming post about what I was able to figure out about my Joseph Williams. I'm busy narrowing down his date of death using both chancery records, order books, and judgments on a court case he was involved in around the time of his death. I have to plan another trip soon to start off where I left off. 

3. Time with Family

Genealogy is all about people. The beautiful thing about genealogy in the 21st century is that it's easier than ever to meet with extended cousins. This trip, I met up with my recently found cousin for lunch. It's always nice to see my cousin Crickett! That afternoon, I met with my dad's second cousin (from my Williams side) Jim and his wife Debbie. It was such a pleasure to meet for the first time with someone so obviously family. I left our coffee meeting more than ever motivated to plan a Williams family reunion. We're one of those families that always says at funerals, "We should get together more often, not just at funerals," and then we don't see each other until the next funeral. 

All smiles with Jim and Debbie!

On Saturday, I spent some time with my dad in Manchester. Manchester is a fascinating place because it's now just known as South Richmond or South Side. It was an independent city from 1874 until 1910 when it was annexed by Richmond. It sits on the south side of the James River, across from the rest of Richmond. I had driven through Manchester but had never visited the sites where our family lived. Father's Day was the perfect excuse to explore!

In my research I had discovered that some children of Joseph Williams and some siblings of Ona Ann Adams had moved from Powhatan to Manchester. I knew from newspapers I found on USNewsMap.com that Joseph's daughter Emmaline had her funeral presided over by a pastor from Central Methodist Church. I also had her address where she had lived in Manchester from census and directory records. So I made a point to drive past the church and the address where she had lived. Though her home is no longer standing, I was grateful to see that the church is still there.

Central United Methodist Church in Manchester

And no trip to a new place would be complete without checking out the local food! I found Plant Zero Cafe at the corner of Hull Street Road and 3rd Street in Manchester. They have a creative menu (with a lot of vegetarian options), they serve local coffee, and they also have excellent service. It's also connected to a local art gallery! I'll definitely be back!

My healthy & DELICIOUS lunch at Plant Zero Cafe

I had a great trip to Powhatan, Richmond, and Manchester! And while I love researching and reading through records (what a genealogist thing to say, right?), my trip was that much richer for the wonderful experiences I had with my family - face to face, just being family.


When we're sitting behind the records and praying for that dreamed-of document that will break down our brick wall, it's easy to be discouraged. But it's hard to walk away from a weekend full of not only research but also of family without feeling amazingly blessed. Genealogy has brought me so many connections to new and lovely people. It has also brought me closer with my own immediate family as I connect them to our past and together we make the path for our family's future.

Holidays like Father's Day are a great opportunity to not only connect with family but also to dig deeper in paper research and in exploring the places our ancestors and relatives called home. Weekends like this past weekend give me renewed vigor for my research and the hope that it's not in vain. My family, and my concept of family, is forever expanding; what could be better!?

Did you make any genealogical discoveries this Father's Day weekend? Were you able to make any new family connections over the holiday?

I hope you'll join me next time as I encounter my ancestors by remembering the past made present.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Using Descendancy Research and DNA to Scale a Brick Wall

When most people hear of genealogy, they probably think only of a long line of ancestors, going back generation after generation. But is genealogy only about our ancestors, or is it also about our cousins? What happens when we hit a brick wall and can go no further back?

As we saw last week, we have to be certain that we're following the right path, that we're standing on solid ground in our attempt to scale that brick wall. So we double check our research, we use census and vital records at our disposal to make sure our brick wall is where we think it is.

Once we know we're correct in our deductions, we can move forward with two of the Ten Steps to Family History Research: remember that siblings matter and that DNA is the way! The principle that siblings matter tells us that not only should we move backward to determine ancestors, but we should work with all available records that relate to our ancestors' siblings as well. And if we're aiming to access all available records, we must acknowledge the powerful and evolving record that is our own DNA. Just as paper records hold a wealth of details about our past, our DNA can help us follow, confirm, and even reject the conclusions we've made from our research.

In this week's post, we'll look at the use of descendancy research and DNA to scale my Williams of Powhatan brick wall.

1. Descendancy Research

In my last post, I showed how I worked back to my brick wall ancestors of Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams of Powhatan County, Virginia. In order to discover the parents of Joseph Williams, I will need to find out all that I can about Joseph Williams and his immediate family with Ona Ann Adams. This is helpful for a few reasons. Most immediately, each child of each generation leaves behind different records that can confirm their relationship with the previous generation. This could ultimately provide important information about Joseph and Ona Ann. Secondly, descendancy research tells the wider story of the descendants of the ancestral couple. And perhaps most importantly, descendancy research provides a list of modern descendants of the ancestral couple with whom we can connect and collaborate.

When doing descendancy research, be forewarned that your tree will grow large, and quickly! I include every birth, marriage, divorce, census, city directory, social security application, death, and burial record for every descendant of the ancestral couple. Since I began my descendancy research for Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams, I have worked down all lines at least to 1940 (the last U.S. census available) and in many cases much further to include living descendants.

The challenge is finding confirmed descendants of the target ancestral couple. Here, obituaries come in handy! They often provide names of children and grandchildren of those who were born prior to 1940. From there, with some genealogical sleuthing, you can usually find some of your cousins online through google and social media. In my case, I've even figured out I went to high school with some of my cousins!

For most of us, paper research isn't going to be enough. We're going to need to collaborate with people in a way that can absolutely confirm genetic relationships: through DNA.

2. Genetic Genealogy

Genetic genealogy is where descendancy research and the use of DNA combine to form an incredibly powerful tool in our family history research. Since I have worked down from Joseph and Ona Ann, and have discovered as many of their descendants as possible, DNA helps me connect much more easily to living descendants of my brick wall ancestors.

What sorts of DNA testing are most helpful in this process? Since this is a paternal line ancestral couple I'm working to discover more about, Y-DNA testing will be important. But since we're also looking at the wide spread of descendants of two people, we also need to utilize autosomal DNA. So let's look at these two types of DNA briefly before going on to show how they have helped me connect to DNA cousins.

Every cell in our body holds within it 23 pairs of DNA that are our own unique combination of the DNA inherited from our parents. One of those pairs are known as the sex chromosomes and determine our physical sex as male or female. Each person inherits an X chromosome from their mother and either an X or a Y from their father. Men inherit a Y chromosome, while women inherit another X chromosome. Y chromosomes remain almost unchanged from generation to generation, which means that the Y-DNA I inherited from my father will be (usually) the same as the Y-DNA his father passed on to him. The degree of difference between two men who match on the Y chromosome can give us clues as to how far back they share a common paternal ancestor. The measurement used to show this difference is called "genetic difference" and refers to the number of differences between two men's Y-DNA caused by naturally occurring mutations on the Y chromosome.

When we study autosomal DNA, on the other hand, we're looking at the DNA that both of our parents passed along to us. Keep in mind that each generation looses 50% of the DNA from the generation before. So while autosomal DNA is hugely important, especially when combined with descendancy research, a negative match between two people does not necessarily mean that there is no shared ancestor. It simply means that they share no sizable segment of DNA. While the two individuals might not be related after all, it's also possible that two related individuals simply did not inherit the same segment of DNA from their shared ancestor. But when two people do share autosomal DNA, it can unlock mysteries that sometimes paper records haven't yet.

So what does it actually look like when we combine forces, when we combine the use of records (descendancy research) and DNA in the case of Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams?

3. Y-DNA research

To test my Y chromosome, I have used two tests. First, I tested my father with FamilyTreeDNA with a Y-DNA37 test. This test looked at 37 different locations on my father's Y chromosome to compare it with others in their database. The lower the number of markers tested, the lower the definition (so to speak) of the picture it can give of the Y chromosome. I chose a 37 marker test over the 12 marker or 25 marker test for this reason. Next, I upgraded to a Y-DNA67 marker test for even greater precision. Since Y-DNA is passed from father to son, my dad's Y-DNA should ideally only match other Williams men (since surnames in the British Isles are also passed from father to son).

Y-DNA67 results from FamilyTreeDNA

As you can see, only one of the 15 men tested have the surname Williams. The other surnames are Blackwell (3), Thomas (1), Harris (1), Traylor (3), Miles (1), Roberts (1), Rogers (2), Rowland (1), and Owen (1). The Williams match is my father's second cousin (which confirms that they both descend from Joseph Edward Williams at the very least). The next two most common surnames are Blackwell and Traylor. At 37 markers, there were also a few men who match with the surname Blackwell and Traylor but have yet to upgrade to a 67 marker test. I reached out to the Blackwell and Traylor matches and found that their earliest known ancestors lived in neighboring counties to mine in Virginia! I also have joined the Surname Projects on FamilyTreeDNA for each of those surnames in addition to the Williams Surname Project. These results show one (or both) of two possible scenarios: our common ancestor was before the adoption of surnames in the British Isles, or there was a NPE (non-paternity event, non-paternal event, or mis-attributed paternity) since the time our shared male ancestor.

More recently, I tested with a newer DNA testing company, LivingDNA. In addition to their autosomal DNA test, they also test the Y chromosome. While FamilyTreeDNA estimates my paternal haplogroup as R-M269, LivingDNA gives a much more specific result of R-L21 with the subclade R-DF13. This means that my paternal line descends not only from R-M269 (the most common haplogroup for Western European men) but from the more specifically 'Atlantic Celtic' haplogroup R-L21 and its subclade (subgroup) R-DF13. I've also ordered an additional SNP test through FamilyTreeDNA in hopes that they can confirm the same results that LivingDNA found.

So far Y-DNA research has shown that my Williams line is not closely related to any other Williams line that has been Y-DNA tested. My paternal line is however closely related to Blackwell and Traylor men from the neighboring counties of Goochland and Chesterfield. I also know that my Y-DNA is connected mostly with men from Atlantic Celtic ancestry, which makes sense considering Williams is a Welsh surname. What can autosomal DNA research reveal about Joseph Williams?

4. Autosomal DNA research

When working with autosomal DNA, the trick is to get as many of the oldest generations tested as possible. This is because the oldest generations have retained more DNA from the target brick wall ancestors. In addition to my father and his two sisters, three of their first cousins were tested. This gives me a firm foundation of autosomal DNA to compare all of the rest of our matches. Additionally, since I have access to my father's and aunt's autosomal DNA results, I can look at DNA matches for both of their tests. I was able to test my fourth cousin who I discovered through descendancy research and who also grew up with my father. His connection has proven invaluable as he matches some distant cousins that neither my father nor my aunt connect to.

Through analyzing the shared cousin matches of my father, my aunt, and my fourth cousin from the Joseph Williams line, I was able to identify the following matches that descend from the children of Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams. I found two from Eliza W. Williams, six from William Henry Williams, three from Emmaline Williams, and one from Ellen Frances Williams. As for the descendants of Joseph Edward Williams (from whom my line descends), I have found five matches from the other siblings of Arthur Lewis Williams (my great-grandfather). In total, there are ten descendants of Arthur Lewis Williams that have been DNA tested. I have yet to find matches to descendants of three of Joseph and Ona Ann's children: John H., Mary Ann, and George W. Williams.

Since we are working with matches that vary from as close as sibling matches to as distant of matches as forth cousins-once removed, not all of these individuals share DNA with one another. But they do all match with the same general pool of DNA cousins. Additionally, I have been able to confirm their connection to Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams.

There remains a large pool of mystery matches that connect with many of the individuals listed above (and to one another) but whose connections to us is unknown. Some have no known relationship to the Williams and Adams families. Others connect with other families from Chesterfield and Powhatan. Yet still others descend from other Williams men from Powhatan living at the same time as Joseph Williams, namely James H. Williams and Powell Williams. I hope to determine the relationship of these two men to my Joseph Williams.


When you hit a brick wall, and have done an exhaustive search of the census and vital records available, descendancy research and genetic genealogy can be powerful tools in your genealogical toolkit. Descendancy research gave me a wide web of DNA cousins that I could connect with, and using autosomal DNA, I was able to confirm matches to individuals already in my tree. Y-DNA has told me more about the deeper roots of my paternal ancestors and their roots in the British Isles. And while my paper research led me to Joseph Williams, DNA research has confirmed that I do in fact descend from him.

Have you utilized descendancy research for your brick wall ancestors? Have you gotten the full use out of your DNA test results to assist in breaking down your brick wall?

The question may remain as to who the parents of Joseph Williams were, but my research - using both traditional records and genetic genealogy - has helped me to once again encounter my ancestors as I remember the past made present.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Using Census and Vital Records to Scale a Brick Wall

I have a common surname. I mean a really common surname. I remember as a kid looking at the white pages for Richmond, Virginia and seeing page after page of Williamses. Even then I knew there was little chance those names represented my family.

As I began my family tree, there were certain family lines I was most interested in. I was curious about my mom's German ancestors and her relationship to Patrick Henry. And I wanted to know anything I could find about my paternal grandparents whom I never had the chance to know personally.

But adding name after name, pushing back generation after generation, I found that the hardest line to follow was my paternal surname line. That Williams line was proving to be the trickiest of all.

So how have I worked on discovering my Williams roots? How am I scaling my brick wall?

1. Stand on solid ground

If I'm hoping to scale my Williams brick wall, I have to make sure I'm standing on solid ground first. That means building a firm foundation of genealogical research on all of the generations from myself back to my brick wall. It's only with my feet on solid ground that I can even get close to that genealogical hurtle.

This post will show how I built solid ground around my grandfather's paternal line. He was named Arthur Marvin Williams and was born 23 March 1914 in Powhatan, Virginia. He passed away on 11 February 1989 in Chesterfield, Virginia and is buried at Graceland Baptist Church in Powhatan County. Gratefully, his parents are also buried at the same cemetery, so I knew their names (Arthur Lewis Williams and Mary Susan Wooldridge) and their dates of birth and death from their tombstone.

Unfortunately, tombstones alone are imperfect sources of information because the person giving the information might not have highly reliable information themselves. So instead of assuming the dates are correct, my best bet is to follow the trail and build the tree keeping in mind the names and birth years of his parents. I also have my grandfather's parents' names confirmed from his marriage certificate.

2. Census and Marriage Records

Since I know Arthur Marvin Williams was born in 1914, the first U.S. census to include him would be the 1920 census. When I view the 1920 census records, I see that there are three possible townships in Powhatan County. As I can read on the Library of Virginia website, the 1870 Virginia Constitution called for each county to be divided in at least three townships (amended in 1874 to be magisterial districts). Powhatan was divided into the following districts: Macon, Spencer, and Huguenot.  I find my grandfather in the Huguenot District of Powhatan County.

1920 U.S. Census for Huguenot, Powhatan County, Virginia

The 1920 census gives me some helpful information as a foundation. I can't build firmly if I only follow him and his parents, and their parents. I need to include all of the siblings on each line. Each individual will produce various documents over the course of their life that will in turn provide new or corroborating information. [Note: You would also want to find the 1930 and 1940 censuses to follow this family forward in time.] So what do I see here in 1920? I see my grandfather Arthur with his parents Arthur L and Mammie S. (Mammie or Mamie being a common nickname for Mary) along with his little sisters Inez and Thelma. Especially helpful to me are the names of three of Arthur Lewis' brothers: Clyde A., George L., and Emmerson. This will be helpful in confirming relationships as we move along. I also see estimated ages for each person which can give me an approximate year of birth.

Since I see that Arthur Marvin was the oldest of Arthur Lewis' and Mary's children, I can initially assume (note: this is just an *initial* assumption, it could be wrong!) that Arthur Lewis and Mary were married between 1910 and 1920. After searching the marriage index for Powhatan County, I find their marriage on 21 August 1913 in Powhatan. I will note the names of both sets of parents. Arthur Lewis Williams lists his parents as Jos. (abbreviation for Joseph) and Mary Williams. So my next step is to find a Joseph and Mary Williams with sons Arthur, Clyde A., George L., and Emmerson (which I learned from the 1920 census). 

I find Arthur Williams in the birth index for Powhatan County as being born on 30 February 1883 to Joseph and Mary Williams. This means that the first census he could have been included with his parents would have been the 1900 census (most - including the Powhatan records - of the 1890 U.S. Census was lost in a fire). Unfortunately, I can't find Arthur Lewis Williams living with his parents in either the 1900 or 1910 censuses. He is living with others (which I have since discovered are his aunt and uncle) for both years. So instead, I decide to check out the 1900 census for Joseph Williams. 

1900 U.S. Census for Huguenot, Powhatan County, Virginia

In 1900, Joseph E. and Molly J. (Molly being another nickname for Mary) are living in Huguenot district with nine of their children. Note that the 1900 census gives the number of years a couple has been married and also provides the number of children a woman has given birth to and how many of those children are still living. In this situation, Molly J. Williams has given birth to ten children, all of whom are still living. I know these are the parents of my Arthur Lewis Williams because I see his three youngest brothers in the record as Clyde A., George L., and Eugene E. Arthur Lewis is the oldest child and is the tenth child not in this record.

Now that I have an approximate date of the marriage of Joseph E. and Mary J. (1881 based on the 1900 census), I want to find that marriage record. I find the marriage record for Joseph E. Williams and Mary Jane Barley in Powhatan County on 27 July 1881. Joseph E Williams' parents appear to be Jos. or Jas. and Anne Williams. The letters "o" and "a" can commonly be confused in records from the 18th and 19th centuries which could make Jos. or Jas. the abbreviations for Joseph or James. Since Joseph E. Williams was married in 1881, and I know his birth to be either May 1852 (based on the 1900 census) or 1851 (based on his marriage record), I go looking for the 1880 census. 

1880 U.S. Census for Huguenot, Powhatan County, Virginia

I find Joseph E. Williams, born about 1851, living with Joseph and Anne Williams. They're also living next door to a William H. Williams who is only eleven years older than Joseph E., so I take note of this in case they're siblings or cousins. Based on this 1880 census record, Joseph and Anne Williams were born in 1817 and 1816 respectively. Further on the right side (not included in the image above) it shows that both of them were born in Virginia as were their parents. This is the first census record to include relationships to the heads of house so I am grateful to see that Joseph E. Williams is listed as the son of Joseph and Anne. Next, I look for the 1870 census. I'm also taking note that the Williams family has been found in the Huguenot district of Powhatan in all of the census records so far.

1870 U.S. Census for Huguenot, Powhatan County, Virginia

The 1870 census record includes more of the children of Joseph and Ann (notice a different spelling than the 1880 census spelling of Anne), along with Mary Adams. Her age might suggest she's a mother-in-law, but the 1870 census doesn't show relationships like the 1880 census does. So let's look at the 1860 census to see if there are any more clues to relationships.

1860 U.S. Census for Huguenot, Powhatan County, Virginia

The 1860 census shows all of the children of the Williams family, except for one (which could be discovered by searching marriage records) named Eliza. Another baby boy was born and passed away in 1858. Important to note in this 1860 census is that the enumerator is clear about the county of birth for each person. The individuals listed above the Williamses were born in Hanover County and Louisa County. But beginning with Joseph Williams, the census enumerator switches back to naming Powhatan County. This 1860 census record also shows that Ann's first name is Ona (here with the nickname of Oney). Mary Adams is living with them this census year as well. The marriage record for Joseph Williams and Ona Ann might clarify this further. 

Joseph Williams married Ona Ann Adams in Powhatan, Virginia on 30 March 1838. Ann Adams is listed as the daughter of William Adams. Unfortunately, as is common, the name of the groom's parents are not listed. We know that Ona Ann Adams' mother was Mary Adams born about 1780 or 1785. But for now, we do not know Joseph Williams' parents names. We have one record (the 1860 census) that lists his place of birth as Powhatan County in 1817. 

The Williams family has yet to be found in the 1850 census. In U.S. census records from 1840 and before, only the head of household is listed. In the 1840 census, Joseph Williams is found in what is then called the Eastern District of Powhatan County. The household has five individuals: one white male aged 20-29, one white female aged 20-29, one white female under the age of five, one white female aged 50-59, and one female slave aged 10-23. 

3. Death Records

We know that both Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams were living in 1880 but they are not able to be found in the 1900 census. Presumably, for now, we can assume that they passed away between 1880 and 1900. In a coming blog, I will show how I have narrowed down their estimated dates of death. But their death records are not the only ones which may be relevant here. The death records of their children can also shed light on details of their parents' lives. But, like tombstones, death records are only as reliable as their informants. 

From the records listed above, I was able to discover that Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams had eight children who lived to adulthood, and one who died as an infant. Their names from oldest to youngest are Eliza, William Henry, John H., Mary Ann, Emmaline, Joseph Edward, George W., Frances Ellen, and an unnamed infant boy. 

William Henry Williams' death certificate lists his father as Joseph E. while Joseph Edward's death record simply lists his father as Joseph Williams. No other record shows a middle name for Joseph Williams.

4. Conclusions (for now)

I was able to trace my grandfather's paternal line back to his paternal great-grandfather by searching and analyzing census, marriage, and death records. His name was Joseph Williams and he was born about 1817 presumably (based on the 1860 census) in Powhatan, Virginia. He married Ona Ann Adams in 1838 also in Powhatan with whom he had nine children; eight of their children lived to adulthood. We also know an approximate range of his death: between 1880 and 1900. 

While we have a record of Joseph Williams in the 1880, 1870, 1860, and 1840 censuses in Powhatan, no record has been found for him in the 1850 census. The parents of Joseph Williams are still not known. Though we haven't yet scaled this brick wall, we have built a solid foundation of genealogical research. Additionally, we have documented census, birth, marriage, and death records for all of the children of Joseph Williams and Ona Ann Adams. 


The next step is to use descendancy research along with DNA testing and other available records to see how we might get closer to scaling this Williams of Powhatan brick wall.

How have you utilized census and vital records? Do you have a brick wall in your genealogical research? Might you have some shaky ground in your research or have you built a solid base working back to your brick wall?

It takes effort to build solid ground in researching our ancestors. Each census and vital record helps us hone in closer and closer, and each detail helps us paint a clearer image of them. Records are more than data on a page; records are the means for us to encounter our ancestors and to remember the past made present for us today. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Finding Home In My Hometown

When I graduated from Powhatan High School in 2005, I didn't expect I'd ever look back. I grew up in a county in Virginia with only one high school, where the times seemed to change as slow as molasses on a cold day, and where stoplights were feared nearly as much as signs of the End Times. I was like a racehorse at the starting gate, anxious to be freed. I wanted to see the world, to experience something different than country life.

As I saw the world and experienced cultures so unlike my own (and yet also so similar), I discovered that that small unknown place in Virginia had shaped me and molded me like I had never before realized. When someone would ask me in Egypt, for example, "Where are you from?" I'd respond "Virginia," before "America" ever came to mind. I realized then that my home state - and my hometown - were part of my identity even more than being an American.

That small place on the map started to feel more like home the further I moved away.

1864 map of Powhatan County, Virginia

So what is it about a place that keeps calling back to us even as we try to pull away? What calls me back to Powhatan even as I dream of returning to the big city? What changed that made me appreciate my hometown?

I studied my family history.

And the deeper I dug in history, the more I saw that Powhatan has been home to much of my family for centuries. The more I saw my family's place in Powhatan, the more I saw my place there too.

So just how Powhatan am I? Besides growing up there myself, my grandfather's family is rooted in Powhatan. Arthur Marvin Williams was born in 1914, graduated from Powhatan Agricultural High School in 1931, and was the first man from Powhatan to sign up for the draft for World War II. All of his great-grandparents lived in Powhatan going back to the early 1800s. My furthest known Williams ancestor was a man from Powhatan County named Joseph H Williams born about 1817. You'll learn more about him in a blog sometime soon, for sure. With all of these roots in my hometown, I've decided to just assume I'm related to the whole county at this point!

Powhatan County is a place of woods and fields, red clay and curvy country roads, huntin' and fishin,' "yes ma'ams" and "no sirs", of big Sunday dinners and family reunions. Powhatan is the hometown that found a place in my heart as home.


When I first moved to Powhatan from neighboring suburban Chesterfield as a 10 year old, I never imagined that quiet country place would become home. But I guess it took some growing up and some moving away to bring me to take a second look. And looking closer I found family, and in encountering my ancestors in Powhatan, I found myself a home in my hometown.

How were you shaped by your hometown? Are you from the same place as your ancestors?

I'll see y'all next time on my journey of encountering ancestors by remembering the past made present.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Ten Steps to Family History Research

Now that you know a bit about me, why I've named by blog as I have, and you've read some of my genealogy journey, let's start talking about how you can join me on this amazing journey that is family history research!

1. Collect your oral history

Every family has a story. Depending on your family, you may have grown up hearing these stories at holiday dinners or while sitting with your grandparents. Or, if your family is like mine, you may have grown up thinking there were just some things you didn't ask about. Either way, now is the time to begin asking questions!

In the first step of building a family tree and learning your family history, you will be collecting stories, names, places, and dates. You're going to want to start by talking with the elders of your family. What I've found is that some folks get nervous or question their ability to remember certain things. But if you ease into the questions, or make it conversational, they're less likely to get deer-in-the-headlights about the interview process.

I'd recommend writing down as many facts that each family member can remember. Even seemingly unimportant little details may help later in breaking down research barriers. Consider using a recording app on your phone (my iPhone has a Voice Memos app that I use all the time) to record these interviews. These recordings may very well become priceless records for your family!

2. Start with yourself

Now that you've collected some data from your interviews/conversations with your family members, you can begin making your family tree. Though it may sound overly simplistic, begin with yourself! Write down your birth date and place of birth. Are you married? When were you baptized? Where have you lived? We can easily ignore ourselves in our research because we view the exercise in a (rather ironically) self-centered way. God willing, our work will not die with us...which means we should document ourselves, too.

3. Be organized

Next, you need to use some way of keeping your work organized. I can hear Drew Smith from Genealogy Guys now - he loves to ask genealogists how they keep organized! There are various free family tree charts and templates online. Or if you prefer to work online, you can build a free tree on either Ancestry or FamilySearch. Note that while it's free to build a tree on Ancestry, you have to subscribe as a paid member to browse and attach source documents. FamilySearch is a free website, but you do need to create a free username and password. To work with a software on your computer to store and build your tree even when you're not online, I'd recommend RootsMagic.

4. Add what you know

After putting in your own information, add the information you already know about your parents. What do you know about your grandparents, aunts and uncles? Do you know the names of your great-grandparents? If you've collected a lot of random dates and names in your interviewing process, you should have a lot to put in order at this point. Put all of it in your tree! The online and software programs even allow you to write notes and stories to attach to each person.

5. Siblings matter

Try to gather not only your ancestors' names but their siblings names too. This is a mistake many people make in beginning their family history research. Besides having a more thorough tree, adding a lot of detail - like siblings and their spouses - can help you be sure that you're collecting records for the right person. When you hit the inevitable common name (like John Smith, Joseph Williams, or William Adams - some of my own ancestors names, ugh!), or if your ancestor's records lack important information, you'll be able to verify the next generation by checking records for siblings.

6. The 1940 census is your friend

The US National Archives releases census records 72 years after census day. That means the 1930 census became public record on 1 April 2002, the 1940 census on 2 April 2012, and the 1950 census will come out in April 2022. Our most recent census available now is the 1940 census. So why does the 1940 census matter so much?

The 1940 census gives us important and interesting information on our ancestors. We can learn their address, relationship to those they were living with, their marital status, age and place of birth, where they were living in 1935, their designated race or color, and their profession. It's a goldmine of information and helps us push our tree back closer to 1900 and beyond.

7. Vital records aren't boring

Who knew it'd be so exciting to find a birth, marriage, or death record? Well, once you're researching your family, vital records are...well...vital to your work.

Birth records can be found in the form of birth certificates (which can be ordered in each state according to its respective laws), birth indexes, or as delayed birth records (which a person ordered later when a birth certificate was never created in the first place.) Marriage records can be found as marriage certificates, marriage licenses, divorce records, or marriage indexes. Death records may be recorded in churches and other places of worship, in funeral home records, or as death certificates provided by the local government authority.

Vital records give us all sorts of information like where they were born, sometimes how old their parents were when they were born, what their parents' names were and where their parents were from. If our family member was divorced, the divorce record may provide the number of children that were born to the couple and if there are any children under 18 years of age at the time of the decree. Death certificates can provide helpful health information like what they passed away from and if they had a long illness. Additionally, death certificates usually tell us where our loved ones are buried.

8. Online research is amazing

Family history has never been more accessible than it is today. Notice I didn't say easier? Okay, so it is easier these days to do our family research than it was 20 years ago...but that doesn't mean that the methods are any different. That means you need to use discernment and some common sense, and be willing to put hours and hours of work into what needs to be done.

Through the many online resources, you can find census records, vital records, deeds, city directories, and much much more from the comfort of your home or favorite coffee shop. It makes finding, viewing, and recording data smoother than ever. It also means that there are more people digitizing and preserving priceless family history in libraries and archives all over the world. The push for digitizing records also means we have more people fighting for us like Reclaim the Records to make sure that our family records become and stay accessible!

9. Visit local archives and libraries

Online research will never make local archives and libraries obsolete. We will always need to visit our local archives to view resources only available there. Many of our local libraries and archives hold photos, family genealogies, and records that have never been digitized.

There are amazing records that I've only been able to find by driving to my state archives. An example of this are the Chancery records from the Library of Virginia. If you have family roots in Virginia, make sure you check these out! You can search the index online, but some records are only available on-site. It takes time to read through the old handwriting, but the payoff is incredible. These records that come from court cases paint the stories of our ancestors by connecting the dots in their stories.

Plus, by visiting our local library or archives, we can get advice from and probe the minds of our local archivists. Not only is this what they're there for, but we can learn so much by chatting with these local experts!

10. DNA is the way

Okay so DNA isn't necessary to doing family research, but it sure has become an invaluable resource to our genealogical work. Just as online research can never eliminate the need for on-site research at an archives, DNA data cannot replace traditional research. Instead, they complement and build upon each other.

After building a solid family tree, adding in all of the information you can, and by working back as far as you can with online records and records found at local archives, DNA can help corroborate, confirm, or even disprove your research. DNA can confirm family lines, and can even demonstrate misattributed parentage - where the person recorded as the parent in paper documents turns out to not be the parent. DNA is also vital in cases of adoption, or when the paper trail runs dry.

DNA is not the answer to all of our problems, but it is certainly an important tool in our genealogical toolbox!


As we are beginning - or even continuing on in - our research, these ten steps can serve as guides on the journey. It may feel daunting to document what perhaps no one else has ever done for your family, but it's an important and noble work. Trust that your efforts aren't in vain and keep at it! 

The more we add to our tree, the more we document even the most seemingly insignificant name in our tree, the more we will be doing the work to encounter our ancestors one person at a time, by remembering the past made present. 

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!...it'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.

Monday, March 5, 2018

RootsTech 2018

RootsTech, RootsTech, RootsTech...you were all that I had hoped you'd be!

Well, now that I'm back in Virginia after nearly a week in Salt Lake City, Utah, I finally have a moment to reflect on my time there. I was there for a four day long genealogy conference - RootsTech 2018. Whether you were there in SLC at #RootsTech, or #NotAtRootsTech, here's a glimpse at this awesome week through my eyes.

This was my first view of SLC. Just...WOW! 

I'm from the East Coast, so I've never seen mountains like the mountains in Utah. Just gorgeous! Once I got past the shock of the natural beauty of the place, I went to the Salt Palace Convention Center to check in. That's when it got real! I was at a place with thousands of people gathered to share their passion for family history and genealogy. The theme for the week was "Connect. Belong." and each day was filled with opportunities to connect with a range of fellow genealogists, from professional to beginner. 

Newfound cousins - fellow descendants of William Brewster of the Mayflower.

My new friend Teresa and I were just a little excited to meet Crista Cowan from Ancestry!

I finally met Sylvain, my friend from France!

The NextGen Genealogy Network meetup

This week, I met all sorts of people! I met bloggers and professional genealogists. I met speakers and podcasters I've listened to for nearly two years. I met with members of NextGen, a network of young genealogists from around the world. Now, it's totally possible to do genealogy on your own. You can research your ancestors and be content with just gathering the information you're seeking. But the richness of community comes from being pushed to go further, from being pulled up by others' experience and expertise. Collaboration in genealogy is vital to turn simple research into a rich and living story. These are some of the faces of our community, and I'm blessed to belong to such a fun group of folks!

The Expo Hall

But I didn't just fly across the country to meet people - even as important as connections are! I went to learn...and learn I did! The Expo Hall was packed with hundreds of exhibitors - new vendors, innovators in technology and family history, and even the big companies like Ancestry and 23andme. I got to meet people who work in this field, from professional researchers to those who make products that bring family history to life.

The schedule for the week was jam-packed! There were classes all day, and for each time slot I had to choose from nearly 20 classes. This was the hardest part: which class do I choose?! Here was my schedule:

- Real-World Examples of the Frustrations of Endogamy - Lara Diamond
- 'Deed' You Hear About These Underutilized Records? - Amie Bowser Tennant
- Digital Library on American Slavery & More - Diane L. Richard
- Introduction to Autosomal DNA Chromosome Matching - Tim Janzen
- Decoding Freedom Papers to Uncover Family Connections - Michael N. Henderson
- The National Archives Website - Richard G. Sayre
- Use an Ancestor's FAN Club to Get Past Brick Walls - Drew Smith
- Bankruptcy to Equity: Using Federal Court Records - Michael L. Strauss
- Tracing Slave and Slaveowner Ancestors with DNA and Genealogy - Nicka Smith
- Search All the Jurisdictions and Find More Records - Laurie Werner Castillo
- Tips & Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting - Katherine Schober
- Using Ancestry Tools to Meet the Genealogical Proof Standard - Crista Cowan
- Finding Elusive Records at FamilySearch - Robert Kehrer
- Misbegotten Children: Tracing the Lives of Our Illegitimate Ancestors - Peggy Clemens Lauritzen
- Sources to Research Confederate Soldiers Online - Nicole Dyer

I chose classes that I thought would help me either locate hard-to-find records, or those that taught strategies and research techniques I can incorporate in my research today. And after four days of class, I have 28 pages of notes!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. & CeCe Moore

Each day, we had keynote speakers that got us excited for the day ahead. Brandon Stanton spoke about his experience sharing everyday people's stories with Humans of New York. Scott Hamilton shared his story of being an adoptee, his health struggles, and then becoming an Olympic Gold Medalist. But the last day...whew, the last day was amazing! Henry Louis Gates Jr. told his story of growing up in Maryland, becoming a professor, and then creating Finding Your Roots on PBS. CeCe Moore even took the stage to talk about the fast-growing industry surrounding Genetic Genealogy. But my favorite was the moving performance by the Mexican singer and songwriter Natalia Lafourcade.

Natalia Lafourcade!!!

I'll be honest: I had never heard of Natalia Lafourcade before Saturday. It turns out Natalia sings "Recuérdame" (Remember me) from Disney Pixar's film Coco. My friends keep telling me I need to see Coco because it tells a story about family and the bond that doesn't end with this life. Well you better believe I'll be seeing Coco soon now! I was blown away not only by her rich and sweet voice, and her heard-rending performance, but also by her humble demeanor that she brought to the stage. She sang "Danza de Gardenias," "Hasta la Raíz," and then performed live for the first time "Recuérdame." Her style is an enchanting fusion of pop and traditional Mexican folk. 

My Family. Mi Herencia.

RootsTech 2018 was filled with entertainment! Besides Natalia Lafourcade (my personal favorite!), there was also the opening and closing events of the conference. The opening night celebrated the 1940s with dance and music performed by groups from BYU. The closing event celebrated Latino dance and music in the LDS Conference Center. Both nights were impressive displays of art and heritage that inspired an even greater love for our loved ones and family.

Sunset on Sunday March 4th

The weather forecast had been calling for snow all week, and thankfully it held out until after the conference was finished. Where I was staying - up against the mountains - over a foot of snow fell overnight from Saturday into Sunday. I had to miss church unfortunately, but it was a beautiful conclusion to a wonderful week. As the sun set on Sunday, I concluded the week like I began it: with eyes glued to the natural beauty of Utah. 


I'm so grateful that I was able to attend RootsTech 2018! I learned tons, I met genealogists I had been learning from online, and I made new friends in the genealogy community. I feel less of an island today than I did a week ago. Today, I know I'm a part of a network of like-minded people yearning to build bridges and connect people. 

I have work to do not only in my own family research, but also to put to action the skills and methods I learned this past week. Hasta pronto, RootsTech! I'll see y'all in 2019!!

Following Leads to Church Records

Detail from photo by  Nathan Dumlao Last time, I wrote about researching the clergy listed in our ancestors' marriage records . Si...