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  • Karen Gordy-Panhorst

Genealogy: Digging Into Family History


Photo of family tree document, camera and other documents associated with genealogy

My interest in genealogy started as a lark. I knew that members of both sides of my family had done some research on our ancestors, but I took little notice of the results. When I would ask what our heritage was, my mother always told me that I was “German, Swiss, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, English, French, and American.” As I aged, though, and as older members of my immediate family began passing on, I began to wish I had listened more closely to the stories my grandparents and aunts and uncles had told of their lives. I had the feeling that my history was moving out of my grasp.


Who Am I? How Did I Get Here? How Can I Learn More?  

A close friend is a skilled genealogist and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. One evening, she asked if any of my forefathers or mothers had been part of the Revolution. Well, I told her, family lore has it that one of my something-something grandfathers had been an aide to the Marquis de Lafayette. He was the French aristocrat who served as one of George Washington’s leaders in the Continental Army and led the forces in the 1781 Battle of Yorktown, one of the final battles in the Revolutionary War.


Let’s see if we can find him, she said. She opened her laptop, pulled up Ancestry.com, and started creating a family tree for me. We started with me, then my parents and grandparents, and soon my tree had branches! We found my fourth great-grandfather John Nicholas LeGrand, a soldier in the Continental Army. That evening, we couldn’t establish a connection to Lafayette, but I was hooked!

 

We continued to explore that branch of the tree, which began with me, then my mother Linda Seamster, her father Omar Seamster (my grandfather), his father Anthony New Seamster (my great-grandfather), his father John Melville Seamster (my second great-grandfather), and his mother Sarah Newland (my second great-grandmother). John Melville’s mother was Sarah LeGrand, the daughter of that Revolutionary War soldier.


Photo 1: Photo of a large original framed photograph of my grandfather Omar, taken with my digital camera. / Photo 2: I was thrilled to save this copy of my grandparents, Omar and Esther Seamster, in their photo. A relative posted it online, and I saved it. / Photo 3: Photo of a photo of my mother and her siblings, taken with my digital camera. If you don't have access to the original photo, you have to make do. / Photo 4: Another example of a photo of a photo. This is my mother's high school senior picture. It's been in a cheap frame for decades, and I was afraid to try to remove it from the frame.


If you’re lucky, as I have been, genealogy is a fascinating giant rabbit hole! That night, we found not only one Revolutionary War soldier, but two! When we looked at John Melville’s family, through his mother’s side, we found his great-grandfather Josiah Ramsey, who lived the end of his life in Callaway County, Missouri, just down river from what is now the state capital Jefferson City, and near where I live in Columbia. We found a copy of a handwritten affidavit several pages long of Josiah Ramsey’s application for a pension based on his service in the Revolutionary War. It was his life story in his own words.


Excavating Josiah Ramsey’s Story 

Josiah’s memories of his life story and service began when he was a young child, “before he was old enough to have a distinct recollection of things he was taken prisoner by the Shawnee Indians, and remained with them a number of years and when he was restored by treaty he was claimed by a family whose name he bears. . .but knows well that he was not one of the family that claimed him.” Although Josiah was not certain of his age or birth name, he believed that he was born between 1750 and 1755.


National Archives document showing military history for a Revolutionary War soldier
Example of a document available on the military history of my sixth great-grandfather Josiah Ramsey, from the National Archives.

He was living on the Holston River in the state of Virginia when he was recruited to the Continental Army and sent back to live for the warm months with the natives he had known to act as a spy. He would report planned activities of those native folk back to his commanding officers in the winter months of the years 1775-1780. Josiah said he “was constantly out except when he came in for provision or to bring word of the approach of the Indians which he frequently did.” He enumerates several battles that he was part of and says that he moved to Tennessee in 1783 and served there.


The affidavit was submitted to the court in Callaway County in 1834, and Josiah was awarded a pension of $80 per year retroactive to 1831. Sadly, he didn’t enjoy the pension long, as he died in 1834. I searched for his grave in a cemetery in Mokane, Missouri, but all I found was a pile of pieces of old gravestones in a patch of poison ivy in the back of the small cemetery. I found more information about him and his son Jonathan Ramsey, with whom he lived at the end of his life. (I am descended from Josiah’s daughter Hannah.)


Josiah and his son helped establish the capital of Missouri in Jefferson City (although he had purchased land east of the current capital and hoped to donate the land for the capital). He was the owner of slaves, whom he freed before his death. His son disagreed with that decision and tried to re-enslave the people his father had freed. That disagreement ended up being decided by Missouri’s Supreme Court after Josiah’s death. The formerly enslaved people’s freedom was upheld there…but that’s another story for another day.


Top to bottom, left to right. Photos 1 and 2: From my Ancestry.com family tree: up the Gordy branches. / Photo 3: A view of the stones in the parish cemetery near Linlithgow Castle in Linlithgow, Scotland. Mary, Queen of Scots, was born there. I didn't have enough time to search for ancestors' stones in Scotland, but I will go back. / Photos 4 and 5: As I was preparing for a trip to Scotland, I recorded potential Scottish ancestors that I found on Ancestry.com. My father is Lowell. I found these family connections but didn't have time on this trip to search all the mentioned locations for family information.


When you begin to find your roots, there’s always another story for another day. For example, before I visited Scotland, I decided to explore my Scottish heritage, mostly from my father’s side of the family. Although I have not verified these relationships with the degree of certainty that a “real” genealogist would (I’ve not searched for the historical documents to verify these connections), the resources available through Ancestry.com provided a wealth of anecdotal information. I identified several regions throughout Scotland where my ancestors lived. No wonder I felt so at home there!


Tips for Searching for Your Roots  

With the advent of the world’s information being available online, searching for family history has become much easier than it was for my aunt, who compiled much of the information on my mother’s family history by writing letters to request copies of information or making long-distance phone calls in search of documents.


  • Decide what you’re looking for and why. That will help you focus your search. 

  • Start with your family. Listen to stories your older relatives tell. Find out what they recall about the family. Make notes. Record their stories. They will make great places to begin your search. Look at the boxes full of old photos.  

  • When you have decided on your focus, start with a name and a locale. If you’re able, visit the area history museums. Contact the local genealogy society. Search county records. Many counties have historical records available online. You can find tax records, land deeds, wills and probate records, and more on county government sites.  

  • Check church records. Many churches make baptism records, cradle roll records, marriage certificates, and other records available online.  

  • Check state records. Most states have or are working on making available birth and death certificates and marriage records online. Some may require payment for copies of the forms, but those records can confirm names and dates and family relationships.  

  • Look at newspaper archives. You can find not only obituaries, but news stories, and if you are looking at small-town newspaper archives, you may find neighborhood reporters who detailed the small events of community life—like what social circle clubs met, what the local 4-H group had done, or who was celebrating life events like birthdays or anniversaries.  

  • Check local libraries. You may find area histories or books about local figures. Don’t forget to look at their collections of school yearbooks. You can flesh out the stories of your ancestors by looking at school activities, athletics, and clubs they participated in.  

  • Check with funeral homes in the areas where you’re searching for information on relatives. They may be able to provide information for those whose services they have administered.  

  • Read up on historical events in the areas where you’re searching for information. A story about a coal miners’ strike may help you determine whether your forefathers were coal miners. Reading about how railroads were built, the beginnings of the industrial revolution, or how families prepared for travel on the Oregon Trail or the Trail of Tears may give you ideas on where to search for your family members. Try to connect family stories to events of the day. 

  • Check with historical groups. Organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution may have information that you’ll find helpful.  

  • One last tip: Take the information you find with a grain of salt. Remember that spellings of names and places are fluid. When you look at many historical documents, you’ll find they are handwritten. Spellings can be influenced by the recorder’s handwriting and hearing, so if you find a name that’s close to what you’re expecting, be willing to accept that it may or may not be the person you’re looking for. My grandmother’s name was Mabel. She used to tell me she was not sure how it was rightfully spelled, since family documents recorded her name as Mable and Mabel. I requested a copy of her birth certificate from the state of Iowa, where she was born, and found that her given name was Mabel Neoma. Even if she wasn’t sure of the correct spelling, now I know for sure the spelling her parents intended for her name. Know that if you’re searching for a relative with a common name, you may have to expend extra effort to find the specific John Smith you’re looking for.  Genealogists will remind you to use the FAN—look at information of friends, activities, and neighbors to find out more about your relatives. Never give up! There’s always another tidbit about your relative just around the bend—or the turn of a page.  

 

Free Sources to Help in Your Genealogy Research 

Although you may choose to use sources that require subscriptions, such as Ancestry.com, Fold3.com (military records), or newspapers.com, there are a multitude of free sources, too. Here are a few that you may find helpful. (Sources referenced are for the United States.)


  • FamilySearch.com. A service of the Utah Genealogical Society where users may create free family trees 

  • U. S. Census Bureau. Some census information may provide information that helps in your family history research. 


Photo 1: A random discovery as I searched for information about my great-grandfather Anthony New Seamster. He was the local census taker for the 1900 Federal Census. That's his handwriting from the actual census records that he submitted for his township in Schuyler County, Missouri. From the National Archives; saved to my Ancestry.com family tree. / Photo 2: From the National Archives, the page of the 1910 Federal Census showing my great-grandfather's family entry. My grandfather, Omar, was almost 2 years old at this entry. / Photos 3: My grandfather's World War II draft card, in his own handwriting. From the National Archives. I've saved it to my Ancestry.com family tree. 


  • The National Archives. You’ll find military records, photographs, and other documents, including census data from 1790 through 1950. By law, census records cannot be made available for 72 years; the 1950 census records were released on April 1, 2022. 

  • Library of Congress. The national research library, located in Washington, D.C., has many of its records online. If you are interested in volunteer opportunities, you may help with transcribing historical documents for the Library of Congress. I’ve helped transcribe the letters of one of my childhood heroes, Clara Barton, and some of poet Walt Whitman’s documents.  

  • ResearchGuides.net. Billed as a site for “the basics of online genealogy research for beginners and beyond,” you can find immigration records, census records, and forms to use as you search (family tree charts and other helpful forms). 

Top to bottom, left to right. Photo 1: From Find a Grave, the marker for John LeGrand, who served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Was he really an aide for the Marquis de Lafayette, who served in George Washington's troops? I don't know. I'm still searching. / Photo 2: Photo of an infant ancestor from Webster Cemetery in Schuyler County, Missouri. When I visited the cemetery, I wasn't sure if this infant was part of my family tree, but I took the photo anyway for potential use on the Find a Grave site. / Photo 3: The Find a Grave entry for my great-grandfather that was submitted by a volunteer. I've saved it to my Ancestry.com family tree, in addition to visiting the cemetery to see the stone for myself.


  • Find a Grave. This site is a collection (the world’s largest, it says) of information and photographs of graves. You can search by name or location. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, you can leave a request for information. There’s another opportunity for volunteering. If you’re willing, you may sign up and Find a Grave will send you requests for photographs of gravestones in cemeteries near you. Yes, I have taken photographs of gravestones that people have requested information about and submitted them to Find a Grave. 

  • National Genealogy Society. The National Genealogy Society has free resources for searchers at NGSGenealogy.org/free-resources. A society of professional and amateur genealogists has a quarterly journal and training courses for genealogists included in its membership fee, but searchers will also find its free resources helpful. 

  • Legacy.com. This site calls itself the world’s largest obituary database. You may have already encountered Legacy.com if you’ve perused an online obituary.  

  • Cyndi’s List. Billed as a categorized and cross-referenced list of links for genealogical research, this site claims it has more than 300,000 links in more than 200 categories. 

  • If you find yourself intrigued by things you’ve found in those old photo albums and boxes of photos your family may have, you may want to explore how to preserve the photos for future generations. You may want to organize and digitize the photographs you find. Here are a couple of resources to get you started: Wired.com/story/best-photo-scanning-apps and Shotkit.com/digitize-photos.


Other Resources 


I hope you get as much enjoyment as I have as I’ve looked for information about the history of my family. Happy searching! 



Guest blogger Karen Gordy-Panhorst

An amateur genealogist, Karen Gordy-Panhorst came late to the genealogy game, but finds satisfaction in supplementing the historic data found by others in her family who've compiled information on their ancestors. She is an avid amateur of many things in life: photography, writing, fiber arts, travel, and reading. She lives with her husband (who she met in college at about the same time as she met her friends found on Friendsville Square) in Columbia, Missouri.

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1 Comment


Guest
Feb 03

Thanks for sharing and tracking our family Karen!

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