Some research episodes stand out as being the luckiest, most difficult or most exciting over the years, including these family vignettes:
Dashiell and Lanphier Families. In 1685 during the reign of French King Louis XIV, the Edict of Revocation made Protestantism illegal and tens of thousands of Protestants were killed. To escape the persecution several hundred thousand Huguenots fled to Protestant European nations and the American colonies. The movement drew from the artisan classes -- especially metal and cloth workers, teachers, notaries and lawyers -- and from the French nobility. Our French Huguenot Dashiell and Lanphier ancestors sought refuge in the United Kingdom before fleeing on to America.
Guether and John Families. Our German ancestors generally proved easier to trace than expected. Our second great-grandparents were Guenthers and Johns, with no known given names from Dresden, a city in Germany which the US Air Force obliterated during World War II. Thus I had no hope of finding records and did not try researching those ancestors until 2016. I had limited family stories from a twenty-minute interview with my grandfather, who did not even know his grandmother's correct name, thus his information did not help and perhaps slowed my progress. Much more useful was I had inherited annotated Guenther - John family pictures, although I initially could not find records for the several named daughters' lines. I finally stumbled across one daughter's marriage. From there it took over a week to find the other sisters' records because their father rotated his own middle name with every other child's birth, but he did not change his occupation or his home address frequently.
I could read the names and dates but not the other birth and marriage details, so I began the process of looking for German-born Florida residents who could read old German script, which is a very difficult skill. Finally Stefania and Wolfgang Heber had a German historian help with translations, and my sister Marianne Southall Winslett who lived in Germany for a short time started translating documents. This was the most important and the second hardest step in the process because without translation and thus validation my analysis was unproven. With each forward movement I added another generation for a total of three before running out of currently digitized church records.
Martin Family. Family information indicated the children of our 7th great-grandparents Robert Martin (died 1725) and Mary Downes (circa 1698-1774) were christened in a church in the vicinity of Princess Anne, MD. Just outside that town I visited the locked, deserted church. I later located the original church records in the custody of the Princess Anne, MD Episcopal Church and arranged to visit to conduct research. It was thrilling to read the old record volume that began with my ancestor's siblings' births -- all I needed was the volume written before that one! Unfortunately, the older record volume and its Maryland Hall of Records microfilm copy were both stolen. The minister indicated the volume in question was last seen under the bed of one of the elderly townswomen. Public pleas for its return had gone unanswered.
With luck my cousin Rebecca Martin White went to the Snow Hill, MD library to research her Martin family just when my letter to the librarian arrived stating I would soon be there to research my Martin line. What a wonderful cousin to meet, although we are not certain how we are related! Rebecca was tenacious in plowing through large amounts of hardcopy records and deciphering links among the Martins' Maryland lines. Her persistent detective work uncovered the illusive marriage between my Martin line and the illustrious Dashiell family -- a marriage I knew nothing about -- and a wealth of data on Dashiells.
Lanphier and Ruff Family. Among the marvelous genealogical pathfinders whose research I used was my cousin Janet Beall Broadbent. It was comforting that when we found each other in the 1990s our databases were quite similar. Janet did a tremendous amount of original records research via microfilm, pushing back our exposed German generations and generously sharing her results. What was most remarkable was the extensive information Janet uncovered concerning the direct ancestors of our 4th great-grandfather Judge John Milschleggel Ruff -- the Helm, Milschleggel, Emmert, Kamm, Franck and Meferts families. Equally extraordinary was her find in Maryland records of a Lanphier family deposition that revealed the Going, Kyle and Rowe families were direct ancestors of the Lanphiers. Janet noted some ancestors seemed to not want to be found, while she felt other ancestors guiding her to critical information that would open up entire lines. She looked forward to meeting her ancestors because she had questions for them.
Another great family researcher and cousin Samuel Oliver Ruff of Arlington, VA did remarkable research and writing on the Ruff family and made great efforts to ensure his readers understood the historical context as our ancestors moved through time. His most entertaining works added significantly to my understanding of our ancestors' lives. Of interest were my visits to the Ruff homes of our 4th and 5th great-grandfathers in Lexington, Virginia. In particular I enjoyed a tour of Jacob Ruff's (1746-1794) home downtown and of his son Judge John Milschleggel Ruff's (1783-1858) family home on the south edge of town which remains as it was when he lived there.
Wood and Madison Family. One of my most intriguing ancestors was our 4th great-grandfather William Bell Wood (circa 1781-1831.) William seemed to arrive in the Shenandoah Valley from nowhere and marry prestigiously twice. I spent an entire day in the Virginia Archives in Richmond trying to find clues to his parents with no results. Land and will records did not help nor did attempts to trace families with the same surnames in the county. Then two lucky breaks occurred one after the other. On a weekend outing to Charlottesville, VA I toured President James Madison's home Montpelier. Since I always took genealogy printouts on trips and William B. Wood had first married Elinor Madison who was niece of the President, I had William B. Wood's genealogical information with me at the mansion. I was sitting on the mansion's front porch when a Madison family descendant joined me; discussions revealed the Madison family society was meeting in the mansion's basement and I was invited to attend! Unfortunately, the group did not know anything about the Madison line William B. Wood married, but I acquired good connections and a link to the Orange County Historical Society. The Historical Society assured me they never did research for private individuals, but their research historian Ann Miller just happened to be researching my ancestor William B. Wood. A letter shortly arrived with more information about William's parents and their ancestors than I ever dreamed I would find!
Wallace and Woods Family. My Wallace ancestors' information referred to Thorn Hill plantation in Lexington, VA as playing an important role in the family's history. After I knocked on Thorn Hill's door and asked to walk around and take pictures outside, I had a marvelous tour inside and out with running commentary on the history of the house, its cemetery where some of our ancestors lie in unmarked graves and the region.
Not all historical finds turned out to be productive ones. I always wanted to stop at any Virginia county library that I passed. Thankfully my son Daniel started to read at five and could be very happy for most of a day in any library. On one trip to the Staunton, VA library I found Wallace-Frierson and Allied Families which included data about our Wallace ancestors in the early 1800s. As I turned pages I realized the book could help me plant another large segment of our genealogical tree I was growing. When I finally noticed the book based on European publications as opposed to original research and that all the lines interconnected, were based on royal families and supposedly went back to the 400s I was skeptical. Sifting through the book must have taken a half a year. My excitement lasted until I proved our main connection to the line in the book was incorrect; a single critical link in the lineage was wrong thus rendering much of the book fiction as far as our family line was concerned. I experienced this phenomena with other books and internet postings many times since then.
Guzzo Family. Marrying into the Guzzi family brought me the challenge of a new branch to research -- in foreign languages and on a time-line because my parents-in-law were in ill health. The family had only a very few of their parents' immigration documents, noting only their parents names and the families' origins in the isolated southern Italian mountains, thus the search did not seem promising. I visited the small ancestral home town and collected a generation of oral genealogical data. Returning to America, by teaching myself Italian and then Latin, over two years I researched the numerous family lines back to the 1750s. In three mountain towns' civil records I unearthed the Guzzo, Fuscaldo, Mosca, Silletta, Iaquinta, Chiodo, Greco, Mascaro, Bilotta, Caligiuri, Ruperto, Leonetti, Lucente, Ciarlo, Pascuzzo, Girimonte, Sellaro and Iazzolino family lines. Beyond that point, the Italian Catholic Church's Latin records are waiting for another researcher to unlock the data.
Brick Walls Broken. Although there are always brick walls to navigating ancestral lines, especially when maiden names are unknown, the potential for finding our ancestors is almost limitless. A serious brick wall exists when a direct-line male ancestor's origins cannot be discerned within four to six generations from the researcher, because within that time frame there should be sufficient documentation available to uncover the ancestral line. Our family had a number of walls which my near-term ancestors and I labored to conquer for over half a century. To knock down a genealogy brick wall requires untraditional data sources, more experienced research help and considerable luck. I have had more than my fair share of fortuitous finds, and I have had incredibly lucky finds at apparent dead ends when historians lent an hand. Our family's brick walls consisted of the Christian, Custis, Pearson, Shell, Southall, Wall and Weathers families. Every breakthrough described below depended on support from a researcher with unique talents and access.
Christian Family. Family records in handwriting older than my great-grandmother's noted my 5th great-grandfather Charles Christian I married Mary Vaughan. Because Charles and Mary were from Charles City County, VA -- a county which lost most of its historic records to fires -- the research was difficult. Complicating the research was that there were five contemporary Charles Christians in that region when my ancestor was alive and that none of the then-active Christian researchers knew which man was my ancestor or knew of the existence of a Mary Vaughan. I made two trips to the county library, but the wealth of Christian information there led me nowhere. Thus I began finding and writing to other Christian family researchers. My first successful step came when I wrote distant cousin Benjamin Weisiger (1924-1995), a Richmond, VA historian and genealogist much published on Tidewater Virginia, noting he mentioned my Christian ancestors in one of his books. He provided me additional unpublished material indicating there were extant records on the division of my Charles Christian's estate. The next achievement was when Ann Wheat Hunter, a Christian descendant, allowed me to borrow the research materials of Michael West Berry (1953-1990), a deceased Christian family researcher. Not only did Michael's data note the second marriage of a Charles Christian to Mary, the data showed she was a widow named Mary Mitchell. Although other researchers only knew of his first wife, key was my Charles Christian was the most noteworthy of the five contemporaries by that name living in the region.
After reviewing poorly indexed county records on Virginia State Archives microfilm for forty hours, I located the Charles Christian land records Benjamin Weisiger and Michael Berry referenced. With it thus established that the most famous Charles Christian had married a Mary. I had a starting point to link that Charles and Mary to my line. I then created a map layout of Charles Christian's extensive lands based on a century of textual deed records, using physical reference points such as roads, creeks and rivers to create boundaries on the map and working with county waterways officials to discern older names for creeks. I next visited the unofficial Charles City County historian, Richard Bowman (1928-2014), a most remarkable man able to discuss county events over 150 years old as if they occurred yesterday. Mr. Bowman confirmed my land layout and took me to Charles Christian's lands near his home. Then in an unforgettable trip to the city hall, for which he insisted he should accompany me, Mr. Bowman extracted an unpromising-looking metal box of aged folded pieces of paper from a shelf near the ceiling and directed I examine it all. The time consuming task of unfolding and refolding the fragile scraps was daunting and I was more than ready to give up. What a shock when I unfolded Charles Christian and Mary Vaughan Mitchell's marriage certificate. Without Richard Bowman's guidance the paper would have never been found. More research is ahead as there are a number of Mitchell and Vaughan families.
Custis Family. A big mystery for our family was the ancestry of our 3rd great-grandmother Margaret Custis Russell (1812-1906.) After Margaret Custis' birth, nine descendants in five generations were given the Custis name including myself without the twentieth-century family members knowing if or how they were related to the Custis family. Renowned genealogist Stratton Nottingham stated in a Russell family report to our family in 1930 that he could find no Russell - Custis marriage; given Nottingham's thorough research skills, he likely found and decided to ignore Margaret's illegitimacy in his report. Our family disregarded Nottingham's report, deciding he was a poor genealogist, and continued to search for the nonexistent marriage. Margaret's paternity was included in a subsequent research report provided by distinguished genealogist Mark Lewis in 1955 but was covered up by our family because of the shame associated with illegitimacy. The true story of Margaret's descendancy was significant enough to cause my grandmother to destroy these professionally-researched family records, but the reports were later recovered from her cousin. Research showed Margaret Custis was not the daughter of a Custis as had been implied in our family for generations; she was a Slocomb - Russell child. Margaret herself may not have known her parentage because she told her son her father was Samuel Russell, who was actually her maternal grandfather. Margaret was born 2 March 1812 and her legitimate stepbrother was born the day before, so her father was busy.
Eminent genealogist Moody K. Miles III from the Eastern Shore of Virginia proved in 2015 our Margaret's father William Slocomb junior was the son of Susanna Custis, daughter of Maj. Thomas Custis. Of note there is considerable incorrect online research on this Susanna Custis, most showing her as Susanna Upshur Custis -- who she was not. Margaret's mother Diadamia Russell, who sought and received meager temporary child support from the wealthy father's Slocomb family, came up with an ingenious reminder for Margaret's father of his paternity without using his last name. Diadamia gave baby Margaret the middle name Custis as a result of the baby's paternal grandmother --our 5th great-grandmother -- being Susanna Custis.
One very surprising find was two direct-lines of Custis ancestors -- surprising because they did not come into our lines where I expected to find them based on family tradition. Susanna Custis was the 5th great-granddaughter of Edmund Custis alias Clift (1568-1620) of Gloucestershire, England, our 10th great-grandfather, through both of his grandsons Thomas Custis and MG John Custis II of Arlington, and Susanna's third husband Henry Custis of Guilford was another descendant of Edmund Custis. So with these lines of Custises in our ancestry there is plenty reason to continue to use the Custis surname in future generations.
Pearson Family. So the mystery of Margaret Custis Russell's heritage was shrouded because she was illegitimate. John Pearson was also illegitimate, but in his case our family did not know his parentage. The Pearson family bible provided John Pearson's name, his wife's name and some of their children's names and birth dates but no more. Despite no evidence to support this, my great grandmother assumed John served during the Revolutionary War which started when John was about age thirteen. Thus our family confused our John Pearson with one of the two other same-named men who served from Virginia and hopelessly entangled our John's data in DAR applications for another so-named man marrying a different woman. Elaine McHale McVey, a senior research historian with the Fairfax County Virginia Library, revealed John's parentage by identifying John's father's correspondence with future president George Washington. Beginning in 2015 Ms. McVey consistently provided key information and detailed research that enabled me to uncover information on several lines of our Virginia family trees.
John Pearson's parentage was complicated and interesting. John's father was the reckless and litigious but wealthy, upper class Ensign Simon Pearson I who had a large family with our ancestor Peletiah Graffort who he lived with for 39 years while his wife Milcah Trammell, who he stayed with less than a year, lived further down Leesburg Pike in Fairfax County with his other son also named John Pearson. Despite their life-long legal separation and a continuous stream of allegations of immoral behavior against Simon during the first decade of that separation, Milcah and Simon had a long-term history of supporting each other on financial legal requirements. Perhaps his permanent maintenance support for her was a factor. Simon left voluminous and colorful legal records. His inherited land funded his gentile lifestyle. With about 3,000 acres, Simon was the tenth largest Fairfax County, VA landowner in a county much larger than it's footprint today. Simon had four large tracts of land near present-day Bailey's Crossroads and another large tract near Mount Vernon, part of which he sold to George Washington.
Southall Family. Piecing together the map of the Christian family's land also helped reveal which Turner Southall of five so-named contemporary men was married into the Christian family -- but not who Turner's father was. As previously stated, breaking through a brick wall requires different research techniques, more skilled assistance and also a lot of luck. In 2013 I visited a reconstructed Southall Plantation in Charles City County, VA. Unbeknownst to me, living on the farm next door on my Southall ancestor's land was Judy Ledbetter, a historian who volunteers at the Charles City County Virginia History Center. Because Judy lived on the Southall land, she had a copy of an extensive 1848 lawsuit to divide the acreage which three generations of Southalls. About a year later I reached Judy and explained what little we knew of our Southall family. Fortunately two names we had in our direct-line genealogy were named in the court case, thus establishing Turner's father as the well-known Cpt. Furnea Southall, youngest son of John Southall (1680-1750.)
Shell Family. The next big step was to expand knowledge of the Shell family of that same Charles City County, and Judy Ledbetter was again instrumental in that endeavor. The Shell family line however was much more difficult because they were not wealthy. Our ancestor George D. Shell was one of three of our direct-line ancestors who appeared to purposefully leave no records of his parents -- hence his parents' names were not contained in his bible although his wife's parents were included. George may not have even known his parents' names because he was taken to Richmond as a young boy, likely because he was an orphan. Conclusions regarding George's parents most likely being Marston D. and Frances Shell were reached through exhaustive research and analysis of Shell deeds, estate inventories, and tax and census records by Judy Ledbetter and myself. With the knowledge there were limited Shell families living in the area, based on circumstantial evidence we concluded Marston Shell's parents were Stephen (~1759-~1856) and Susan D. Shell (~1760-~1836.)
Wall Family. The Wall brick wall crumbled between 2016 to 2018. For 50 years I, and other family members before me, searched for a family named Warle, the surname passed down in our Spanish family tradition. In 2016 I posted our data about the Warle family from Spain on a genealogy message board and included that I was searching for my ancestor Eliza Warle Palmer Wood of Philadelphia and Richmond, daughter of a Spanish military general. In 2017 I was contacted by Elana Messner, an art historian specializing in historical research in those two cities. Elana provided fantastic leads to a ship arriving from Spain with the Wall sisters aboard, a Philadelphia marriage record for Eliza Wall and a Louisiana death record for a George Palmer. After that I found Eliza Wall's parents overseas and their daughters' birth records in Spain. Their father Sir Augustine Wall was Irish, joined the Spanish military and was knighted before his marriage. He was prominent but the research was complicated without traditional sources and by the language barrier. So there was a thread of truth to our family tradition, and Augustine Wall became one of our noble ancestors proven to date.
Weathers Family. Some of our brick walls are just now crumbling using DNA sledge hammers despite my working long and hard from many unconventional directions to scale them, including tracing ancestor's sibling's descendants, reading innumerable web postings and trees, and going through bible record internet files a page at a time. I had limited success with our 2nd great-grandfather Pvt. Thomas Weathers' line despite years of trying. Thomas was an interesting man whose wife Jane Amandaline Beam was from a large extended family whose members served the Confederacy. Thomas' military record shows he enlisted in 1862 and served with his with his brothers-in-law in battles at Manassas, Harpers' Ferry, Antietam and Fredericksburg before apparently succumbing to post traumatic stress disorder and a subsequent likely self-inflicted gun shot wound that occurred while he was hospitalized or in transit. After recovery from the wound, Thomas was given 30 days rest and deserted for parts unknown. Five years after the war ended Thomas returned to Alabama where his wife rejected him, and he was said to have lived for decades more in the state but did not appear in any further records. DNA comparison results have shown Thomas was the son of Pvt. Stephen Weathers of Georgia and Alabama. The Weathers Family DNA Study is evealing the stories of Stephen's ancestors.