The History Keepers: Local Women Excel at Climbing Family Trees
History is a living science to those who document a place in its pages. Women who belong to genealogy organizations seem particularly fervent.
Many have spent decades searching courthouse records for birth and death certificates, wills, marriage licenses and land transactions. They pore over military records, family Bibles, tombstones — and now the Internet — to find proof that an ancestor lived during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War or before.
This documentation allows them membership in the National Society of Colonial Dames of America (NSCDA), the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) or the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).
They are the proud. They are the few. They are the history keepers.
And they may be aging out.
Dorothy Thomas is a woman with a past. Her journey harks back to the Revolutionary War, with a long chapter set during the Civil War. Thomas recites names of North Carolina ancestors with the speed and authority of a history teacher, which she was for 30 years.
The past is safe with Thomas, president of the 36-member United Daughters of the Confederacy/John Blue Chapter, who keep the 19th century alive through memorials and good works.
“My husband says I’m obsessed,” Thomas admits. She compares researching a family tree to pondering a puzzle: “You find one piece and that leads you to another and you just keep going.”
Without obsessive research, how would Southern women know that Rose O’Neill, of Greensboro, spied for the Confederacy, while others smuggled documents in their pompadours and escape devices for prisoners in their hoop skirts? Some women followed troops to the edge of battle, cooked for them and washed their clothes. Without a written account, would we believe that women posed as men to fight enemy troops? Or that the term “hooker” originated with prostitutes following Gen. Joseph Hooker’s Union regiment?
Thomas revels in this knowledge.
UDC was started in the 1880s to aid Confederate veterans or mark their graves. Ministrations extended to survivors and casualties of subsequent wars. The Aberdeen chapter, named for a local boy who traded his gun for a mule and helped bring the railroad to town, was formed in 1951 in accordance with the state motto “Lest it ever be forgotten.” The chapter carries out the national organization’s objectives: benevolent, educational, historical, memorial and patriotic. They are best known for the annual Confederate Memorial Day held in May at Old Bethesda Church cemetery, resting place of 32 Confederate and two Union soldiers. Some participants wear antebellum costumes.
Some of Thomas’ soldier-ancestors are interred at Bethlehem Baptist Church cemetery in Carthage. She is its docent.
“When I’m here I feel a sense of family and kinship, like I know them on a first-name basis,” she says.
Thomas and her husband live on a farm in Jackson Springs that has been in the family since 1884. She absorbed oral history from her parents — like the time her grandfather spoke of how his grandfather, a Confederate soldier, died. Thomas learned about the UDC at, fittingly, a family reunion. A cousin invited her to a meeting.
Until retiring in 1999 Thomas had little time for investigation. But by 2004 she was able to present “official papers” proving that an ancestor took part in the Civil War. Her lineage includes Thomas Tyson, a 19-year-old killed and buried at Petersburg, Va., in 1864.
“We get a ribbon for each ancestor,” Thomas says. “I have nine.”
They were not come by easily.
Thomas haunted courthouses and libraries, tracked down leads, interviewed old-timers. Since her North Carolina relatives remained close to home intermarriage was common, with names and namesakes duplicated, causing confusion. Records were lost when public buildings, including the Moore County courthouse, burned.
“It’s not hard to get cooperation,” Thomas says. “They point you in the right direction, then you have to delve.”
Thomas’s lineage also qualified her for the DAR and Colonial Dames but she opted to concentrate on the UDC as recorder of military history, service awards and now, president. She admits that membership is down; younger women have neither the time nor the passion.
For Thomas, genealogy goes beyond finding people.
“I’m interested in the times when my relatives lived, the geography — whether it was wet or dry — and how they farmed,” she says.
Also social issues, family structure, politics, food and health.
“My grandmother from Hamlet worked for a doctor; she knew all the home remedies,” Thomas says proudly.
She amassed dozens of 19th century photographs, which flesh out facts and figures.
Most film and TV recreations don’t do the era justice, she says: “They glorify life when it was really a fight for survival.” Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” and mini-series “North & South” get the nod over anything produced by Oliver Stone.
“He makes up a lot, just to sell movies,” Thomas says.
Thomas acknowledges negative perceptions associated with Civil War history, especially flying the Confederate flag, which at UDC functions is always displayed with, and below, the American and North Carolina banners.
“We’re not trying to refight the war,” she says. Rather, perpetuate history and honor. “We try to be careful and fair.”
Sarah Hawes’ contemporary Pinehurst townhouse exudes the grace, style, furnishings and patina of a fine 18th century homestead. Décor includes a framed family tree springing from Johann Theobold Hunsucker, born in 1748. The tree was drawn by her mother, Frances Hunsucker Gibson, now 96.
Like Thomas, Hawes grew up attending family reunions in North Carolina — rich sources of information and “the finest food.” She and her mother joined the DAR together, sharing documentation.
“I knew they had a deep commitment to American history, with programs focusing on the Constitution and historic preservation,” Hawes says.
Hawes, a teacher for three decades, has established a line to Mary, Queen of Scots (born 1542, beheaded 1587); Colonial governor of Virginia Richard Bennett and Gen. Robert E. Lee. But it was Hunsucker supplying Revolutionary War troops in Western North Carolina that qualified her for the DAR.
The ancestor need not be a combatant, Hawes explains: “You could’ve just stood up in church and spoken supporting the revolution, in a peaceful way.” But any act must be documented.
Not all searches turn up patriots.
“If you never found (an ancestor) who didn’t live on the edge you haven’t looked far enough,” Hawes says.
In her own Bible, part of a page has been cut away, which raises suspicion.
The Pinehurst DAR chapter, now with 60 members, is named for Temperance Smith Alston, the woman who negotiated a surrender to save her home, the House in the Horseshoe, and the patriots who were defending it. Fewer than a dozen of North Carolina’s 100-plus DAR chapters are named for women. The Alfred Moore chapter serves Southern Pines members.
Hawes rejects the idea that genealogy organizations are elitist.
“Our members are hard-working women from all walks of life, with different interests and educational backgrounds,” she says.
The average member is in her mid-50s, with many older. Young members are recruited through the Children of the American Revolution (CAR).
Some chapters have African-American members, but none have applied in Pinehurst.
Hawes’ researched county records and the N.C. Archives in Raleigh, but also visited the National Archives in Washington, D.C., for further verification. Now, she says, many documents are available online through libraries. Hawes calls sites like Ancestors.com “a good place to start,” more convenient but less thrilling than deciphering spidery script.
As proof Hawes brings out her family Bible from the early 1800s, newly rebound in leather. She turns the pages reverently.
“When my hands touch these documents I know history is right here,” she says.
Hawes is acutely aware of hardships, often glossed over.
“When I’m working around the house and too tired to cook dinner, I think about the women who had to grow the vegetables, kill the chicken and start the fire,” she says. “I just turn on an oven. This makes me humble and appreciative of where our nation has come from and for the men who gave their lives.
“It gives me a historical and personal perspective, in the sense that I like to preserve history in a framework that enhances the present, with eyes to the future.”
The Colonies Club
Sue Aceves keeps papers, books, photos and artifacts in the “genealogy room” of her Whispering Pines residence. A tin biscuit cutter and angel food cake pan hang from the wall, beside pictures of William Pearce, who made them for his daughter, pictured also, in 1877. Later, Pearce was off to California, prospecting for gold.
The Pearces are relative newcomers to Aceves’ lineage, which she traced to Mayflower passengers John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, the third couple married in Plymouth Colony, in 1623. She also discovered a link to a Salem woman accused of witchcraft and a great-uncle who was considered a n’er-do-well for his artistic leanings.
“He might have been in jail but I can’t prove it.”
Aceves belongs to the Mayflower Society but is more active in the National Society Colonial Dames 17th Century, Deep River Chapter. Average age of its 32 members, mid-70s, with several in their 90s.
Worrisome, she admits.
“We’re aging out,” Aceves says. “We’re looking for members who will fit in, enjoy being in our company.”
Admission is limited to women with proven lineal ancestry to a person who lived and served in one of the original Colonies before 1701.
Aceves’ face lights up when she speaks of the avocation sparked during childhood.
“My father was very proud of his Mayflower ancestry, and my grandmother encouraged her daughter, my mother, to investigate the Cheatham line.”
When Aceves’ parents traveled on business her mother gravitated to local libraries. Eventually, she visited Britain, to dig deeper. Aceves accompanied her mother on a foray to a Manchester (England) library where she held in her hands estate records dated 1170.
“My goal was to fill in the women’s lines” — difficult, since women routinely died in childbirth, leaving their husbands to marry a sister or cousin.
Aceves cemented her relationship with the past during the late 1980s, while re-proving her Mayflower ancestry through records in Chapel Hill and the Duke Divinity School Library. At that time Aceves and her mother joined the Colonial Dames together, using documentation in progress for 30 years.
“My mother thought the Colonial Dames were more prestigious (than the DAR), since you had to go back to the 17th century,” Aceves says, with a touch of humor. Meetings take place quarterly instead of monthly. Programs center on patriotic, often military, themes. Aceves, a pianist and music teacher, made a presentation on songs written for and during the Revolutionary War.
Oddly, Aceves’ search turned up no musicians, per se, but found many well-educated women, including one who established a girls’ school in Tennessee, which she kept open after her husband’s death.
“If it weren’t for women, we wouldn’t have civilization or art,” says Sue’s husband, Joe Aceves, an anthropologist of Spanish heritage. “You get a truer history with Sue’s kind of research than by reading a history book.”
Aceves continues to fill in blanks.
“I just love being able to find a pathway and follow it back,” she says.
She is puzzled by an 18th-century ancestor named Margaret Lawrence, whose New York address is known, while details of her life remain, perhaps forever, a mystery.
Genealogists confirm that the chase is half the fun — and never over.
Joe Aceves expresses a more acerbic view: “If you’re not anybody, you look for somebody who was.”
Or, you seach for roots in an increasingly rootless world. Websites and professional genealogy sleuths have invigorated this pursuit for hunters in a hurry. But the past’s future rests with a younger generation.
Dorothy Thomas and Sarah Hawes have no children but try to draw nieces and nephews. Sue Aceves’ daughter is busy raising a family. All realize that in the 21st century and beyond, family histories will be accessed by striking a key, burning a disk, swiping a card or touching an app.
So be careful. Down the line a curious woman may be watching.
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com.
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