Wednesday, September 3, 2008


I really don't know where I come from.

I mean, I know that, basically, all my "people", on both my mom's and dad's sides, are from the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. But when we've tried to trace back further than a few generations, we've hit roadblocks. We've never known with any certainty what breed we are; I envy those folks who know which ancestor came over on which boat from which European country. As far as my grandparents ever knew, their known ancestors hailed from Knox, Bell, or Lee counties, not from Ireland, England, or Germany. It was as if my family sprung wholesale from the rocks and springs of the Appalachian mountains in some sort of divine occurrence.

I've tried some genealogical research before using the new online resources I'd heard so much about. Some of my friends were able to go back many generations without ever visiting a county courthouse or state records archive; I was never even able to find anything about my grandparents. When you're from a group of people who were not born in hospitals, and who only filed birth certificates years later when they needed to pay into Social Security, it can be difficult. Not to mention that many of the rural counties of Kentucky have had a history of piecemeal record-keeping and few resources to help them get what records they have scanned and available online. I gave up years ago; I figured I would have to drive 4 hours each way to get to some of the county courthouses I needed to go to find anything out.

Yesterday afternoon while waiting for a class to come in, I decided to play my favorite online game, Beat Wikipedia. Here's how I play: I go to a Wikipedia article about a topic I know a lot about myself and try to find an inaccuracy that I can later use to show researching classes that Wikipedia is not always a reliable source for academic research. On a whim, I decided yesterday to see what everyone's favorite free encyclopedia had to say about my parents' home county, Knox. Because I am a creature of habit, I did my search through Google rather than going straight to Wikipedia.

One of the first hits, above the Wikipedia page, was a link to Knox County, Kentucky records available through Rootsweb. I knew it was probably a dead end, but I clicked on it anyway.

And ten minutes later, something popped up on my screen that made me gasp and made tears come to my eyes: my maternal grandparents' marriage certificate in all its handwritten glory.

After that, I found my paternal great-grandfather's death certificate.

And after that, the death certificate of my maternal great-grandmother.

I could not believe it. And the beauty of seeing marriage and death certificates is that I now have some leads I didn't have before; the parents' names and birthplaces are listed on death certificates, and parents' names are also on marriage licenses.

The downside is that some of the records I've seen for my family are illegible or vague or even contradictory; the great-grandfather's birth location is listed on one document as Bell County, Ky., but on another as simply, "Va." The man listed as my maternal grandfather's father is not his biological father, but a man who his free-spirited part-Cherokee mother settled down with after having 3 or 4 kids by different fathers. It will take finding his birth certificate to finally solve the great family mystery of who his dad really was, and so far birth certificates are hard to find through either the county's records or the state's. There is a great disclaimer I found about the general state of chaos of Kentucky birth records until around 1920. Apparently, it was not thought of as a big deal to file one with the state in the rural counties. In a place where everybody knew everybody and people stayed on one piece of land from cradle to grave, it just wasn't that important.

After Ains was in bed last night, I did some more digging and tracing and have some leads that will take me to Virginia's online records and to some other Kentucky counties. Surprisingly, the little bit of research I did in other counties made me even more impressed with Knox's recent initiative to digitize their records; my ancestral county has really been a pioneer and is working hard to help people doing genealogies. Who would have thunk that that little poor county would be such a digital-searcher's paradise?

I hope before the first snowfall that I will be able to tell you, with certainty, who that first Cranky pilgirm was who travelled across the ocean in search of religious freedom and/or a better life. And the name of the Cherokee who gave life to my maternal great-grandmother, the striking high-cheekboned, eagle-nosed woman who I have seen in a picture with her long arms around my Papaw and his brother. My Papaw didn't talk much about his mother and her family, but my mom has said he knew the name of the tribe he was descended from. If only we learned more of the details from our elders while they were still alive.

I am not so idealistic to think that all my ancestors from both sides are going to hail from one country and let me be able to say, "We're English," or "We're Scottish." The beautiful thing about being an American is that so many of us are "mongrels." So many of us can say we're a little this and a little that. I am just really excited to finally have some leads about what the "this" and "that" are.

Have any of you traced your families? What did you learn? And the big question: What are you?

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