colorful genealogical chart for recording marriages

How far back can you trace your family tree?

A Crusader in your past? A bank robber? Join the great ancestor hunt

By John I Stewart

A cablegram from Oslo reported tersely: Have located Olaf Gustavadson.

To anyone but a genealogical buff, the importance of this communique might seem questionable, for Olaf Gustavadson has lain peacefully in an Oslo cemetery since December 3, 1687.

But for Charles Mosley of St Paul, Minnesota, this find by a colleague in Norway ended a 13-year search that would do credit to Sherlock Holmes. Olaf was a great (times nine) grandfather of Mosley, and the discovery of his hiding place was a crucial step in the journey Mosley is taking into the unknown past.

Charles Mosley isn’t alone on this sort of journey. From Hong Kong to Houston, from Las Vegas to London to Leningrad, a swelling army of genealogists is in relentless pursuit of their relatives, dead or alive — but especially dead. For many, the main object of the search is to trace their ancestry as far back into antiquity as possible. A forebear tracked down to the 12th century, marching in the Crusades, is worth half a dozen kinsmen of Civil War vintage.

Why do they take up the chase?

“Genealogy makes history come alive,” reports a Boston acquaintance of mine. “The Declaration of Independence was just a historical document to me until I traced my line back to Benjamin Harrison, one of its signers. Now I feel I am part of American history.”

On a pedigree chart, Ellen Johnson of San Francisco inherited from an uncle in England she found the name Jane Barnes. A note scribbled beneath it intrigued her: “This Jane I fear is the barmaid what sailed with that bloody McTavish.” Whereupon Mrs Johnson took up the trail of her colorful forebear, who turned out to be a widely-traveled barmaid indeed.

MORE: Genealogy: How to find a grandpapa (1899)

In 1813, one Donald McTavish sailed from England aboard the heavily armed Isaac Todd, for Fort George (Astoria, Oregon) as newly-appointed British governor of the disputed Pacific Northwest. The thoughtful McTavish listed under “Miscellany supplies” one item of baggage called a “Rum Keep,” which came aboard ship in the person of Jane Barnes, a “winsome, flaxen-haired, blue-eyed barmaid,” complete with lavish wardrobe donated by McTavish.

When the ship reached the mouth of the Columbia 14 months later, Jane Barnes became the first white woman to set foot in the Oregon country. And a dainty foot it was. Special protective quarters had to be built for her within the fortress and a constant guard maintained to shield her from the affections of trappers, soldiers, and Indians.

Japanese family - woman and children

Within a month after their arrival at Fort George, poor McTavish was drowned in the Columbia River, along with five of Jane’s bodyguards. After four months as mistress of the fort, the voluptuous barmaid fled back to England via China with an understanding Captain Robson.

Your family tree and the mystery of your history

Quaint customs, peculiar names, sentimental wills, and astonishing gravestone inscriptions keep genealogists busy. Other genealogists are motivated by a desire to trace their pedigrees back to a lineage entitling them to join such organizations as the Daughters of the American Revolution or to bear a family crest and coat of arms.

Not since the days of Richard the Lionhearted has there been such keen interest in heraldry as there is today. If you are of Scottish descent, you are entitled to arms if you can prove you are the heir of someone who has recorded arms in Lyon Register, begun in 1672 and kept in the Court of Lord Lyon, Edinburgh. If you are of English descent, you are entitled to arms if you can prove your male descent (father to son) from someone whose coat is officially recorded at the College of Arms in London. A number of other countries have similar requirements.

For Thad Whalon, professor at a northwestern university, ancestor hunting has replaced detective story reading as a spare-time pursuit. “It’s much more fun solving real mysteries in your own family than reading fictional ones that someone has concocted,” he says.

A scrawled entry in an old family Bible first aroused Whalon’s curiosity. “Sylvester died suddenly today of a neck injury. May God rest his soul,” the notation read. Sylvester turned out to be a son of Whalon’s great-great-grandparents, the Christopher Hanks. Unable to get further information locally, the professor threw a sleeping bag into his station wagon and traveled to an Arizona ghost town where the Hanks were believed to have lived at one time. For three days he searched through the forsaken cemetery, like a benevolent grave robber. Finally, his persistence paid off.

Home family record - Genealogy - history - birth and marriage

The weed-choked tombstone read coldly:

WILLIAM SYLVESTER HANKS
1836-1863

Armed with the year of death, Whalon searched through the fragile, musty pages of a one-time community newspaper on file in the local library. He was hardly prepared for what he found. Under the heading, “Notice of Departure,” he discovered poor Sylvester’s fate:

Though born of woman, he died by man
His name was Sylvester Hanks
Love of money got the best of him
And he was hung for robbing banks

Strange coincidences and other tales

Although most genealogists are realistic, practical persons who pursue their hobby in a systematic, businesslike way, there are few who cannot tell you of some phenomenal experiences they have had during their searches — a compelling hunch, extrasensory perception, clairvoyance, or plain coincidence.

Mrs Winifred Lazear and Miss Maud Smith of Basco, Illinois, were first cousins who made annual trips to Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky in a futile effort to find data on their great-great-grandmother, Lucinda Davidson. Returning home from yet another unsuccessful safari, they were forced by road construction to detour through Loogootee, Indiana, where they stopped at an antique shop. Mrs Lazear spent $4 for an old walnut picture frame that took her fancy.

When, weeks later, she got around to refinishing it, she tore out the faded photograph in the frame and was about to throw it away when she noticed some writing on the back. To her astonishment and delight, there on that photograph were the names and dates for which she and her cousin had searched so long. They had not recognized the photo as that of a relative but had been interested only in the frame.

John A Widtsoe, a prominent scientist and the president of the University of Utah, had an avid interest in genealogy. One day while on a business trip to Stockholm, he was hurrying along a busy street when he heard a voice say to him, “Go across the street and down that narrow alley.” Only imagination, he quickly decided, and ignored the order.

“Almost at once the voice came again, as distinctly as any voice I have ever heard,” Widtsoe tells the story. With that, he crossed over went down the side street, and there found a small bookstore which had just purchased the library of a recently deceased professional genealogist, a library containing a treasury of Swedish genealogy which Widtsoe badly needed to locate the burial places of his seafaring forefathers.

Vintage family record - register - antique published in Louisville Kentucky

Your family tree can include millions of relatives

The novice family detective will be surprised to discover the fantastic number of direct ancestors he has. Yet it is a matter of simple arithmetic: You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc.

By doubling the number in each generation you soon run into astronomical figures. In just the 20th generation back, approximately the year 1300 AD — about as far back as most researchers could get — theoretically you had more than a million grandparents. You need never run out of a hobby!

One of the most confusing problems faced by nearly every family detective is the matter of spelling changes. Rare indeed is the family whose name has not been spelled at least a dozen ways over the centuries. A Seattle genealogist, Mrs Harold L Adams, has found 65 variations of the name “Morford,” including such spellings as Morfoot, Morefat, Morefit, and Marfort.

George Olin Zabriskie of Honolulu traced his name back to one Albrecht Zaborowskij who migrated from Poland to America in 1662. In all, he found 123 different spellings!

It is easy to get started in the family detective business, for you begin with the person you know best: you. Write down all the important, interesting facts about yourself, such as date and place of birth, your parentage, brothers, sisters, and friends, your husband or wife, your children, your schooling, religion, vocation, hobbies, and sports — whatever will make you a living personality to a future generation.

Next, move on to your parents, then your grandparents. If you are like most people these days, you will be hard put to go further without research. How many know the full names of their eight great-grandparents?

1902 Dayton C. Miller Family - Genealogy

Starting your own search for your family tree

There are many books on genealogy currently available, as well as thousands of family histories in the Jefferson room of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC. By registering your research with the Mormon Church, you can participate in the Pedigree Referral Service of the Genealogical Society Library in Salt Lake City and so learn who else is working on your line. In addition, you can have your records microfilmed there free of charge with a copy for yourself.

The reason for this library: The Mormons consider genealogy an important religious obligation. Every Mormon is expected to search out his genealogy and compile books of remembrance. To fulfill his obligation, the Mormons have spent millions of dollars gathering and microfilming vital records from all over the world and building a network of genealogical libraries and training schools. The Salt Lake genealogy library, the world’s largest, is open to Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

Family genealogy books, published at a cost of from $3 to $20 per copy, make good gifts to relatives, including wedding gifts. Today, with families more widely scattered than ever before, such books help strengthen family ties.

It is only human that you should desire a touch of immortality here on earth, an assurance of a place in history, a hope that after you have gone the way of all flesh, someone will know and care that you once passed this way. A genealogical record is one means of achieving that hope.

The Encyclopedia of American Last Names


About this story

Source publication: The Danville Register (Danville, Virginia)

Source publication date: August 20, 1967

Filed under: 1880s, 1890s, 1960s, Culture & lifestyle, Family & parenting, Featured, Photos & photography

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