In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. Take some time to dust off the old photo
In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.
Take some time to dust off the old photo albums and boxes in the attic, and you might just find out that you had a distant relative who signed the Mecklenburg Declaration — North Carolina’s version of the Declaration of Independence — or who migrated to the western part of this state when it was still wild and unsettled. Every handwritten letter and folded-up document found here just might lead to a bigger story.
“When my parents began doing their family trees, that gave me my first peek into genealogy,” says Lynn Bancroft, vice president of the Mecklenburg Genealogical Society (Olde Meck) in Charlotte. “I’m just the kind of person who likes doing detective work, and it fits into the idea of solving a puzzle — finding out who all of your ancestors were and putting it together into a story is really fascinating.”
We asked Bancroft and two other experts — Diane L. Richard, a professional genealogist and proprietor of Mosaic Research and Project Management in Raleigh, and Elizabeth Hayden, a reference librarian at the State Library of North Carolina’s Government and Heritage Library — to share how our state’s history plays into North Carolinians’ family trees, plus their best tips for delving into genealogy research and where to find help along the way.
|Diane L. Richard
Professional Genealogist at Mosaic Research & Project Management in Raleigh
Reference Librarian at the State Library of North Carolina, Government and Heritage Library
Vice President of Mecklenburg Genealogical Society (Olde Meck) in Charlotte
Diane L. Richard: My mom’s whole family is in England, and most of my dad’s family was dead by World War II, so I developed a curiosity. When I first got married, I started using some of my leisure time to research my family a bit more formally, but then I put it aside. Eventually, in 2004, I hooked up with the local genealogy groups and just dove in. I wrote up all my family genealogy so that it wouldn’t be lost. And now, 18 years later, I still love what I do. I love trying to help people and I love problem-solving. Each day, everything I do is different — every week is different.
Elizabeth Hayden: Like most librarians, I’ve worn many, many hats. My job has always been to help people get information, and genealogical research came along with my job. We have a big genealogical collection, and we just try to learn as much as we can in order to help people get the information they’re looking for.
Diane L. Richard: The place to begin is seeing what your family has — looking at all the living family members and finding out what people have at home. Do they have family Bibles? Do they have photos or military records? Families often have things that would be very hard for a researcher to get their hands on — you’re never going to find that kind of stuff elsewhere. It’s not just learning new information to help you then research further, but by finding it, hopefully, you’ll also help preserve it.
Elizabeth Hayden: The first and most important thing to do is to interview family members, especially older family members. When they’re gone, the knowledge will be gone, and I think we’ve all regretted not asking questions that later in life we wish we would have asked. Aside from that, it’s good to start with the U.S. Census. It puts a person in a place and time, which is important to know to do further research. The latest census that has been released with names is the 1950 census — 72 years must pass in order for the names to be released.
Lynn Bancroft: Generally, you should start by writing down what you do know about your ancestors. Your parents’ and grandparents’ names, birth dates, marriage dates, and death dates, if you know any of those. You also should check your closets for any kind of backup material, like certificates, photo albums, or anything that would give more information about family members. Then you could begin to fill out what we call an ancestor chart to put it all in an organized structure.
Diane L. Richard: People forget that at the time of the Revolutionary War, the western part of North Carolina was still a kind of Wild West — there weren’t a lot of services or courthouses. But it had been a great land in terms of people just wanting to start a new life; that’s why Moravians and Quakers came here for religious tolerance. North Carolina is a state of huge migration.
Elizabeth Hayden: It’s really important to research what was going on in your ancestors’ time. Things like epidemics or droughts impacted our ancestors’ daily lives, and that may have caused people to relocate. It’s crucial to have an understanding — not just to get the names and dates, but to get a bigger picture of what their lives were like.
Lynn Bancroft: Here in Mecklenburg County, we’re kind of unique in finding ourselves along what they used to call the Great Wagon Road — a route many immigrants took over years and years of migration. Many people came into the United States further north, via Maryland, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, and settled in those areas. Then, as they felt the need to move on, those people tended to travel along one or two routes: They either went straight across the upper Midwest through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, or they came down the Eastern Seaboard and turned toward Tennessee. Mecklenburg County is right where they traveled through and turned, so there are a lot of people who settled in this particular area of North Carolina for a generation or two and then moved on. We have some unique records that other people might not have.
Lynn Bancroft: The Revolutionary War was certainly a factor in North Carolina. There were battles all throughout the state, and there are records you can find of people who fought in them. Mecklenburg County has a unique connection to the Revolutionary War through what’s called the “Meck Dec” — the Mecklenburg Declaration. Presumably, a group of men got together in May of 1775, more than a year before the actual Declaration of Independence was signed, and declared their independence. They took that up to Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress was getting organized, and were supposedly the first to do that. There’s a little controversy because experts can’t find the actual document, but a lot of people are very proud to be descended from the folks who signed the Meck Dec. That’s a unique facet that people look for when they’re trying to find their family history in this area.
Lynn Bancroft: Tombstones are a major source of information, particularly for long-ago relatives. Before around 1900 or so, death certificates were not issued by governments routinely. If you wanted to find out exactly when people died and were born, the best places to go were cemeteries. Traditionally, if someone knew that their ancestors lived in a small town and were Presbyterian, they would go to the Presbyterian Church, and it would lead them, hopefully, to their ancestors. Looking at cemeteries is a welcomed pastime for a lot of genealogists. It’s a little bit less necessary now with online resources like Find a Grave, which is community-sourced by people putting up photos and transcriptions of graves everywhere in the country. But I think you’ll find that most people who are into genealogy appreciate actually standing in the graveyard and thinking about the area where their ancestors lived. Sometimes you can learn things by looking at the other side of the tombstone or seeing where people are buried in relation to other people.
Diane L. Richard: There are several popular websites that you can use, like Find a Grave, but the thing to recognize is that it takes local effort to get smaller cemeteries and graveyards included on those sites. And historically, the collection of information was prejudiced in the sense that it wasn’t as diverse as it could have been. For example, when initial surveys were done in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration, they skipped African American cemeteries for the most part, which also means less of a paper trail, because a lot of times tombstones just haven’t survived in all cemeteries. The other thing is assuming everybody’s going to have a tombstone or a tombstone that survives. Sometimes a pile of rocks was put someplace, a small wooden cross was constructed, or something could have been etched in sandstone. Now we’re used to these big, formal, looked-after cemeteries, but historically, a lot of people in North Carolina would have been buried on their farms.
Diane L. Richard: I try to remind people not to get caught up on there being a certain way to spell a name. Nowadays, we have IDs with our names, or somebody will ask to spell our names, but they didn’t ask those questions back then. You would’ve been talking to a clerk, who would have written down what they thought they heard. You can find a first name, surname, or even a place — people just have to try and think a bit more broadly. Also, there’s often some interest in having Native American ancestry — many approach me about it, and one of my first questions is always, “Where did your ancestors live?” If your family spent 200 years living in Duplin County, you’re not going to find Cherokee heritage. It’s just recognizing what you started with and understanding the history component of where people lived.
Elizabeth Hayden: People think that everything is online now, and it’s not. It’s challenging to make people understand that there are many, many places to look, you just have to be persistent. All libraries do not have the same materials, and a local library where your ancestor lived may have collected something entirely different from another. It’s really critical to check every local state library and local history collection.
Lynn Bancroft: So many families have these tales or themes of an “Indian princess” or somebody who was cast off — and, generally speaking, they aren’t true. The facts come out if you do the genealogy and find out that there was no Native American blood at all in your family. The other caveat, too, is that you must verify information that you see online. People can submit their family trees on the big genealogy websites, and that part is not verified at all by the companies. A lot of people just take what’s online as gospel, add it to their family tree, and proliferate it, believing it’s true, but real genealogy takes proof — it takes finding sources that confirm facts every little step of the way.
Diane L. Richard: I did some research for the TV show Who Do You Think You Are?, in which a celebrity — with help from a genealogist — looks into their family history. I’d exhausted what the archives had, and I ended up finding a late-1700s, early-1800s ledger that aligned with the right place and time. I have found out people’s shoe sizes and what kind of clothing they wore by looking through those. You’re getting a really intimate sense not just of who you’re researching, but also of their community due to the bartering nature of it. “This person works for this person who then pays their bill at this business” — it’s different than a census record that just gives you name and age.
Lynn Bancroft: I have a fabulous respect for a great-great-grandmother who lived on a small farm in northern Wisconsin and had 18 children, 15 of whom lived. She took in her daughter’s three children after she died in an accident and raised them in addition to the 15 that she already had. Then one of those children had a son out of wedlock, and she raised that grandson. She was a person that just was the ultimate mother to me, spending an entire life raising children from every generation. These days, with DNA testing, you find out all kinds of interesting connections to people you didn’t know you were related to, and that brings in lots of interesting stories.
Elizabeth Hayden: There was a woman who was looking for a grandmother she had only heard about, and she couldn’t find anything about her. We took the strategy of looking for the name of someone who lived in the same household, and we found her through that person’s census record. For a lot of people doing genealogy, it’s more than a hobby — it’s an emotional journey. It’s really a great pleasure to be able to help somebody make a connection.