The history you can touch

Tangible history is always interesting to check out when doing genealogical research. By “tangible history”, I mean the street your great-grandparent’s lived on, the house your 3rd great-grandfather built, the land they worked, or even just going to the town ancestors lived in to see the same mountain tops in the distance that they saw every day.

The access to this kind of history is vastly different depending on which side of my family I’m researching. My father’s family has been in Alabama since the early 1800s, for the most part in the same county. They moved around a lot, so there’s no family homestead to go back and see. When I go to Alabama to visit family, I’ve never been able to drive around with my notes to different roads and towns to check out where my family used to live.

One exception was when I drove  to an old cemetery in Sylacauga with my dad, his brother and his uncle. It was off of a main road and up a small windy hill.  On the way up, we drove near where my grandmother had lived when she was young–a much more rural or country-looking place than I had seen before.  The cemetery was a small hanging-moss-covered cemetery. We had to push branches out of our way as we walked to my great-great grandparent’s grave (to the right).  My uncle remembered that my great-great grandfather used to smoke Prince Albert Tobacco from a tin and that he had lost an arm in the cotton mill. I had never heard these stories, but being there prompted them.

It was definitely a rare moment for my father’s side of the family.

My experience on my mother’s side is nearly the opposite.  Right now, my parents live close enough to walk to the cemetery where my great-grandmother is buried.  I’ve visited at least once a year for my entire life.  The first house my Armenian great-grandparents lived in when they came to Watertown from Syria (via New Hampshire) is still standing and I’ve been by it many times. I’ve walked on the streets they walked on. I know the view they had from their front porch. I didn’t have to conduct research to hear stories about this side of the family–they were all round me. Seeing these pieces of history, always prompted stories, like they did in Alabama. The difference here is that it happened often, so I have more stories and anecdotes to fill in for the 10 years between each census record I transcribe.

It’s always worth it to make the trip to the places where your ancestors lived; at least it has been for me.


I have a pretty big love for Ireland, it’s people, music and literature. It has nothing to do with my ancestry, it just is. In fact, I’ve always assumed I don’t have anything beyond a drop of Irish blood.  As I learn more about my ancestors, while that may still be true, I’m also pointed toward a people I had never thought much about: the Scots-Irish.

It’s silly that I hadn’t thought of them before as half of my family has been in one or another part of Appalachia since the 1700s and 90% of the early settlers of Appalachia were Scots-Irish; it only makes sense.

So how did I realize this? I was searching back on my dad’s side through the Rayfields, Martins, Robersons and then I hit the Boggs family. As I started to research a distant great-grandfather, Samuel Boggs, I started to find others who had already done a lot of research. Many of them made mention of an old family story of how the Boggs’ got their name.

The story goes: John Livingstone was born in Linlithgow, Scotland and he was a Presbyterian. When Oliver Cromwell was made Protector  by Charles II in Britain, he began rooting out the Presbyterians (Charles II was Episcopalian) and many were exiled to Northern Ireland.  Brothers John and Hugh Livingstone ended up in Londonderry, Northern Ireland and took the surname Boggs. John’s son James Boggs came from Londonderry in 1724 with his ten children to New Castle, Delaware. The family ended up in an area of South Carolina called Long Cane . Samuel Boggs married Mary Campbell, also of Scots-Irish descent.

Now I’m not sure if the Livingstone/Boggs story is true–there’s really no documented proof. What is true is that I trace back to James Boggs who did indeed come from Londonderry, Ireland during a mass migration of Scots-Irish from Northern Ireland to the US.  For the next several generations, the family stay in the Long Cane or Abbeville County area of SC and married into other known Scots-Irish families: Roberson, Clackler, Martin and Henderson.

The Scots-Irish mainly originate in the Lowlands of Scotland or the border towns in Northern England. People in Ireland would think of them as Ulster Scots. Now that I look at all of the surnames in a row, they actually sound Scottish to me. I always just assumed they were English, but now I’m thinking again.

half Rebel, half Yankee

Thanks to the Alabama Civil War Database, I now am in possession of the pension records of my great-great uncle, Emanuel Langley, of the 31st Alabama Regiment. He was a Confederate soldier who was killed at the Siege of Vicksburg. It’s interesting to see how his record contrasts with that of my Union relatives. While they had land and other holdings (cattle, horses) to report, he had nothing. Not to mention, they survived the war and were paid a pension for the remaining years of their lives. I’m not sure what Emanuel’s wife received, if anything.

The month that the Siege at Vicksburg ended, Lee marched his troops to Gettysburg and my 3rd great grandfather, Felix Drais, a Union soldier of the 12th U.S. Regiment got a musket ball through both his legs. He laid on the battlefield for nearly a month in a field hospital. He married the nurse that cared for him and took her back home to Ohio. Many years later he moved his family to Gettysburg, near the field where he was injured, with his horse, cattle, and hogs in tow.

His granddaughter would marry the grandson of another Union soldier, Samuel Reichard who was injured during the Siege of Petersburg while ripping up the Weldon Railroad by hand.

And their granddaughter would marry Emmanuel Langley’s nephew in Massachusetts. A little bit of how I got to be pretty damn American, but decidedly half Rebel and half Yankee.

Starting out

The first time I researched my family history, I was at the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts. I had no idea what I was doing–my Dewey Decimal skills did not help me here. I was starting with just a street address and my great-grandfather’s name. I went from index to index to find the enumeration district for the census that he would be on in 1920, the earliest census available at the time. I sat down at a microfilm machine and scrolled through pages of handwritten census records to find the page he might be on.

It’s hard to remember, but I know I eventually found my great-grandfather and grandmother in 1920 in York, Pennsylvania while sitting at the dark microfilm desk in Waltham. I’m sure I scribbled notes in a notebook. It was probably thrilling to see a census for the first time.

Almost twenty years later and the genealogy world has changed a great deal. Back then I spent time in local libraries and the National Archives and I went to cemeteries when I was visiting family.  When came online, I used it sparingly–I wasn’t even certain how to look for what I needed.

Now I spend a lot of time on and have found unbelievably useful. The RootsWeb mailing lists have also been invaluable, as have the forums. There’s even a tv show about genealogy now. All of these digital advancements have been great and have moved my research along in ways I could not have done with a lot of travel and money. However, I still love sitting in dark libraries pouring over old books or looking at marriage certificates in the vital records office in Boston to find what I need.

I guess this web space will be my ramblings about research, what I’ve found, how I’ve found it and other random bits about history. There are so many stories; if I don’t write them down, I fear I’ll lose them.