By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
After Ann McLeod retired from the military, she and her husband settled in Madison. It was here, while researching her husband’s family history, finding out who was who, which cousin was which and what they were like – and locating the sources that provided this information – that she found a new passion.
“I found my new life “love,” she said. “Genealogy.”
It is not just looking up names and filling in family tree charts. For McLeod, and others who share her passion, it is more like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but instead of having all the pieces together in the box, it means hunting for the different pieces all over the place…birth records, marriage records, census records, military records, hospital records, school records, church records, court records, funeral home records, newspaper stories (including obituaries, birth and wedding announcements), voter registration records and even old tombstones…and then finding the pieces with the right color and the right shaped edges that fit together. Who was whose cousin, uncle, sister or brother? Is this John Smith the same as that John Smith, or is this a different family line of the same name? (In Madison, for example, there are two lines of Livingstons, one of which was involved in the Civil War). Where were they born? Where did they live? What did they do for a living? What were they like? If they were farmers, did they own their farmland or were they sharecroppers?
Were they known as generous souls or were they regarded as parsimonious and stingy? Upright citizens or reprobates? Preachers or horse thieves? Were they influential people, regarded as the “movers and shakers” of their day, or were they, at heart, just ordinary folks, much like most of us?
The Genealogical Society, under McLeod’s direction, has a new focus on people and their personal histories, rather than buildings or events, which are more the purview of historical societies. For example, sometimes after spending the morning researching old obituaries from a particular area such as Rocky Springs, she makes a list of all the other people who were mentioned casually or briefly in the text of the obituary, and then travels to Rocky Springs to see if there is anyone there who remembers these individuals and can tell her who they were and what they were like.
The Society’s genealogical research and information is concentrated around Madison and the surrounding counties, although there is information from other counties and neighboring states available as well. The genealogical library, shelves and shelves of information organized by geographical location, occupies the small room at the back of the Photographic Treasures of Madison Museum. It can be reached by either going through the museum part of the building to find the library at the back, or by going around the corner to the Library’s entrance at 296 SW Rutledge Street. The library is staffed 100 percent by McLeod, who is on hand from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, to greet visitors and let them look around. She can also show them how to search through various sources and find the information they are looking for, whether it means searching through the materials on hand at the library, or explaining how to go over to the courthouse and “chase back” older records that predate the internet and especially, how to use online tools such as familytreemaker.com and ancestry.com.
The collection of papers and records in the library has grown, as older people have donated their family records for safekeeping, and McLeod has added research of her own. There are old newspapers, genealogical catalogues, newsletters from societies such as the DAR going back for decades, old records, typewritten accounts of individual and family histories, and spools of microfilm. She has also tried to “go digital” as much as possible, because of the space-saving reasons and its attractiveness to young- er people. Google, especially, is a marvelous tool, she says, for those who know how to use the computer’s capacity to access genealogical databases from other counties and states, and then sort through the multiple hits they get from typing in one name. For example, in order to find the one “William Jones” they’re looking for, out of as many as 50 hits, they might need to know or track down a middle name, a nickname, a suffix, or title. Sometimes, military titles are a good way to separate one individual out from the rest, since military personnel are frequently listed in records by their titles.
“We help them understand their family,” said McLeod. “Where they came from, who was the horse thief, who was the achiever, who was the teacher, the college professor, who was the ordinary person … the reality, whatever that may be.” Everybody wants heroes in their family, she said, but often, people are secretly proud of the rebellious ones, too.
Besides old records and family papers, tombstones and cemeteries are another good source of raw data that can be gathered and interpreted, especially in the older cemeteries where tombstones are larger, the engravings contain more information, and there is more of a tendency for families to be buried together in family plots. Raw data such as names and dates can be good places to start when looking for other records, and other records can be helpful when trying to interpret the information from the tombstones – beloved sister or brother of whom? Beloved son or daughter of whom? Obituaries corresponding to the tombstones are often a good source of expanded information, providing more data for further researching and interpreting, leading to other sources, more data.
It is hours and hours of reading and gathering data, hunting anything and everything.
McLeod spends a lot of time in old cemeteries, especially the smaller ones, the ones that have been abandoned and are in danger of being lost and forgotten … even “buried.”
She herself located one such cemetery that was once attached to Elam Baptist Church in Dixie County. The church had moved twice, but by searching through the woods at the original location, she located the small plot of ground with seven graves, all of them nearly overgrown, dating back to the Civil War.
She is now offering free genealogy classes to help people get started capturing their family history. Call 850-673-9572 to inquire about future classes.
One of the things she tries to emphasize is “don’t trust…your job is to prove.” That is the only way to separate the truth from the “tall tales” and “family legends.” Find the records that can corroborate or disprove; look for the records that can put people in a specific place at a specific time. Also, don’t take a family history that a relative posts on the internet at face value until you can prove all those claims yourself; unless you know for a fact that your relative did all that research, don’t assume he or she did. “Question everything,” said McLeod.
In the future, she would like to try to get younger people interested in their family histories, and getting the word out about the digital resources is one way. Another project she envisions is having the Society host some sort of genealogy day camp for kids in the summer to get them interested in the subject and teach them how to use all the available tools to learn about their family histories.
Currently, the Genealogical Society has over 130 members, and would welcome more. Dues are $25 a year. The Society is also looking for volunteers to help staff the library, and help sort through and catalogue the dozens and dozens of boxes of old newspapers, newsletters, history journals, as well as many other types of records that haven’t been gone through yet; they are now stored upstairs in the attic space above the Genealogy Library.
To inquire about membership, Monday evening classes, or volunteer opportunities, contact the Society at 850-673-9572, email them at MCGenealogy@live.com or drop by the library at 296 SW Rutledge Street, Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.
For more information, you can also visit their website at madisongenealogy.com.