One of my favorite sayings about genealogy is: It’s better to be looking for dead ancestors, than to have dead ancestors looking for you.
When I first heard that expression, I thought it was hilarious. The longer I worked on family history research, the more I realized that many people, whether they are willing to admit it, have spooky encounters with their dearly departed kinfolk.
Getting Started with Genealogy
I was 37 years old and recently divorced when I started working on my family tree. The divorce needed to happen, but it meant giving up a cute house, a 25-foot cabin cruiser, and the hope of having children. I moved into an apartment over a storefront in Hazard, and felt sorry for myself. A group of Perry County dames decided I had grieved long enough. They were going to get me back to socializing, whether I liked it or not.
Hazard is a coal-mining town of about 5,000 people. There were two primary women’s groups: a social sorority and the Hazard Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The dames said: Pick one. I picked the DAR. At my first meeting, I was given a pedigree chart and the following instructions:
“You know how you prove that you are your parents’ child? Birth Certificate. So, you just keep going backward until you get to the American Revolution,” the registrar said.
Luckily, I had a head start. One of my sisters was married to a man who had worked laboriously on his ancestry. Jack’s family tree was a winding path across America, back to Ireland and who knows where else. When Jack suggested my sister look into her tree, they ventured to Claiborne County, Tennessee.
One day of visiting extended family, my sister had our tree all the way back to the mid-1800s without leaving Claiborne County!
Ancestry was a baby in 1996 and only a few records were available online. I decided to make a trip to Tazewell, Tennessee, to verify the oral histories my sister provided.
Planning Ahead is Essential to Research
RootsWeb had forms to guide my research. Planning ahead was critical, the website offered. Unless you plan, you will have a tendency to circle back to the same records over and over.
With my research plan filled out, I checked in with my chat room.
“Hey everybody, I’m headed to Claiborne County Tennessee tomorrow. Does anybody need me to pick up anything?”
A guy piped up: “Yes, I hit a dead end on my Sowder line. I descend from a Richard Sowder who was married to a woman named Sidney, but I cannot find any records of who her parents were.”
“Sure, I said, I’ll take a look and see if I can find anything.”
A Spirit Reaches Across the Generations
The next morning, I pulled into Tazewell, went into the vault where the old deeds and wills were kept, and got out my research sheet.
I was tracking my Fields family by locating a will on Page 179. The spines of the early wills were torn and faded, so I counted over, pulled a book, and laid it on the table.
Except Page 179 was not a Fields will, and I was looking at the second page of a document, not the first. I started to close the book, but something stopped me. I looked down, jumping right off the page: RICHARD SOWDER.
Hurriedly, I read on.
“I also will that my daughter Sidney that has married Richard Sowder who was born out of wedlock my desire that she receive a full share of my estate with the rest of my children.”
My fingers were trembling as I turned back a page. I could feel the hair stand up on the back of my neck. The will belonged to Jubal Lee. Yes, it sounds like a joke name, “jubilee.”
I froze. I pulled out my pedigree chart. Yes, as I remembered. I descend from Amanda Lee. Born 1825. Died 1911. Checked the date on the inventory. 1846. Sure enough, Amanda was listed as one of Jubal’s daughters.
Reading the entire will, Jubal said: “my two daughters Sidney and Amanda both have attained to lawful age and has received a bed and furniture and one cow and calf …”
Not only did I find the answer to my online friend’s parentage, but I found we were cousins, and that my fourth great-grandfather was a man who had the integrity to own his behavior and do the right thing.
Was that Jubal Lee, from the spirit world, causing me to pull the wrong book, look at the wrong page so I would make the connection to my past and that of a stranger?
I can’t prove it, but I like to think so.