Forgotten Trails: Relatives are like libraries

Published 4:27 pm Wednesday, May 14, 2008

By Staff
One day last week I received a telephone call from someone who wanted to trace their family tree and had a few questions.
I forget sometimes that it has been a while since I gave any advice on how to get started. Let me remind you once again that I am no expert and everything I have learned was done the hard way. I was on my own when I did my research and sometimes I didn't know what to do next.
It is my belief that the most important thing to do, and to do first, is to talk with as many of your older relatives as you can.
An old person is like a library just full of facts and fiction. You can learn facts about your family as well as get some good old-fashioned stories to make your history even more interesting.
Not only do you get your information, it is amazing what you can learn. I will warn you to take everything you hear “with a grain of salt.” The years go by and sometimes the mind gets a bit cloudy on exactly how things happened and when they happened.
One of my favorite stories is to tell about my Aunt Pennie.
Aunt Pennie was married to my grandfather's brother and after his death, she lived on the old home place near my parents. For many years she was homebound and didn't see many people except her daughter and son-in-law. Aunt Pennie was not only my great-aunt because of my Uncle Dave, but she was also the sister of my grandfather's second wife.
Every time I visited my parents I tried to make it my business to go see Aunt Pennie, although my dad was convinced she “probably didn't know what she was talking about.”
One thing was for sure, she did make some mistakes. She would rattle on about someone and it would take me a while to figure out she was a generation off. I was always able to fit it all together where it all made sense. She knew things that I had never heard of and she shared them with me.
Aunt Pennie is gone now and her “library” has closed. Not only did I enjoy all those talks, but also her daughter told me once that my visits became very important to her. As she said, I talked to Aunt Pennie about things that no one else cared about and it was like a big dose of medicine for her. That made me feel really good.
If you have an Aunt Pennie, or someone like her, take advantage of what she knows. I have always found that you can learn more if you don't ask too much at one time. Start with a question and let the person talk. They will eventually go on to tie it to something else. And while you are at it, see if they have any old photos that you can copy. Back when I was first getting started you had to borrow the photo and take it to have a copy made. People are reluctant to let old photos leave their collection. Today, with scanners and photo printers, it is easy to convince most people that you will scan the treasures and get them right back to the owners.
Don't stop with talking to just one person. I always found it interesting to drop a question into a discussion between just a couple of people. It is best not to have too big a crowd, because it leads to much confusion. My mother and father were always good people to ask. They both grew up in the same community and knew the same people as they grew up. When they would get their stories straight, I could learn some good stuff.
I never will forget the day we were sitting around the lunch table and talking about different family members. My parents began to argue about where a particular person fit into my mother's family. After several minutes of heated discussion, my mother exploded with “I know what I am talking about. She is the one the family threw away.”
Now you know I was not about to let that one go by. I almost swallowed my fork before I said, “Wait a minute. Who are you talking about and tell me the story.”
I had already heard a cousin say that she heard we had a relative that was not allowed to come inside of the house, but I had no idea why.
It seems that my great-great-grandfather, James B. Snell, had a younger sister, Jerusha, who had slipper out of the good graces of her family. She was the youngest of 15 children and was a young woman at the time of the Civil War. The family was not rich and owned no slaves. They were just poor dirt farmers who struggled to make crops and feed the children. The children worked in the fields every day and were put into contact with other workers on the farm.
About the end of the war, Jerusha, became pregnant. Not only was she not married but, according to various family members, it was questionably as to whether she was willingly pregnant or not. Anyway, she gave birth to a son, who was undoubtedly part black. You must remember that this was in the late 1860s and times were such that this was just not done.
I found that everywhere I went to talk to family members they knew something they were reluctant to tell. It seems that it was the most well known secret I have ever heard. Once the people knew who I was talking about, they opened up and told me what they knew or what they thought.
I will say this for Jerusha. She never let it separate her from her family. She lived around the family for the rest of her life and was buried in the cemetery where her brothers and sisters were buried. She never married and she raised her son in the same vicinity. He married and raised his own family. Even today you can find his descendants living in Dale County.
Next week I will tell you another way to gather information about you family. You can find out how deep your roots go or how many nuts are on your tree.
If you would like to share any of your family history with me, I'd love to hear from you. I'm always looking for more families to tell about. I get a lot of calls about some of the families I have featured in this space. It seems there are families that lived here many years ago that have either moved away or died off, and it's great to be able to remember them fromtime to time.
You can get in touch with me here at the office anytime. Our phone number is 867-4876 and we are at 407 St. Nicholas Ave., just north of the Escambia County jail. You are always welecome to drop me a line by email at
Until next week, happy hunting.

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