Genealogy is hot on the First Coast Some folks trace their ancestors using traditional methods and some are turning to the Internet.
“My great-grandfather was Mayor of Jacksonville Beach,” says Sue Ann Sanders. “He built the golf course called, at the time, Jacksonville Beach Golf Links. It was later changed to Ponte Vedra Country Club.”
Sanders was born in Duval County but moved to Sarasota when she was four. She now lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so to learn about her family, she turned to the Internet.
She volunteered to maintain a genealogy page for Duval County and to set up a mailing list so that people could communicate about the county’s history and families. It was a natural effort as she designs web pages for a living.
“It’s really helped me personally, so it’s been a real win-win thing,” Sanders says.
Patricia Pate tries to help people who ask questions on the mailing list. “I know a lot of the history of Duval County, and what I don’t know, my husband does.” Pate was born in Duval County, and her husband Ed is the fourth generation born in the county.
Both Pate and Sanders agree that more and more people are researching their roots.
They say there are three primary reasons: an aging population that wants to get in touch with its roots, more mobile people who want to maintain some connection with family, and the aid the Internet gives in tracing one’s roots.
Genealogists generally want to achieve one of three results. Some want to create a traditional family tree in which they trace back their male, and sometimes their female, ancestors. Others create an extended family tree, which shows all descendents and spouses of a particular early ancestor. And a third group creates an ancestry chart. Those people want to trace as many direct ancestors, both male and female, as possible.
Other researchers have a different goal. They want to create a Family History, which consists of biographical research with the aim of producing a well-documented family history. It puts flesh on the skeleton of genealogy.
John Pacetti wanted to fill in family rumors when he moved to Duval County in 1992. He’d always heard his ancestors immigrated to St. Augustine from Spain, and that they were involved with Cuban freedom fighting.
“I went to the St. Augustine Historical Society,” said Pacetti. “They had complete records on the family. I found confirmation that my ancestors had emigrated from the Spanish island of Minorca. “
“I also learned that my several times great uncle, Gumersindo Antonio Pacetti, had been a sort of swashbuckler. He landed in Cuba in 1850 with a band of Americans led by General Narcisco Lopez, who wanted to free Cuba from Spanish rule. Many of the Americans wanted Cuba to become a U.S. state. Family legend says Gumersindo carried ashore the Cuban national flag, but when the Spanish prevailed, he had to escape the island and return to Key West by hiding in a barrel towed behind a ship.”
“I have found historical records which show the first ever Cuban national flag was made in 1849 by exiles living in New York. It was exhibited in New York and Tampa, so Gumersindo could have been the flag bearer. The Lopez raid was a well-documented failure, and American filibusterers had to escape by any means at hand, so the barrel story could be true, too. I like the story, so I choose to believe it.”
“I had an easy time,” says Pacetti. “A lot of other people had done the work for me and it was in the library in St. Augustine. I never had to touch my computer.”
But Jean Barbour, who lives in Neptune Beach, has used her computer over the past two years to trace her mother’s side of her family back to Denmark.
After finding her immigrant ancestor, Barbour did what many genealogists do. She took a trip to the country of her ancestors and did more research there.
“I was lucky,” she says. “All the Scandinavian countries keep their records in the church parishes. There were two parishes involved, and between both of them, I was able to find everything I needed to know.” Barbour says getting started is easy. You get a copy of your own birth certificate and marriage license, and get the same records for your parents. Then, she says, “You get on Internet sites and ask questions.”
Sue Ann Sanders agrees. “I wasn’t really familiar with Mineral City, Cummer Lumber and all. I asked the Internet list and people would write back. They’re just a wealth of information.”
A lot of the information on the web consists only of lists of documents, rather than the documents themselves. Volunteers supply much of the information, and they may make errors. That’s why Patricia Pate recommends checking out what one learns on the Internet. “They may have their facts straight, and they may not.”
She says to double check records by checking in libraries, as Pacetti did, the courthouse, and even close to home. “Many parents put a lot of information in baby books,” says Pate.
Genealogists routinely look in county record books on marriages, births, will abstracts, and cemetery records.
Other researchers look for clues in old school annuals, class photographs, and names listed on invitations to events such as parties, graduations, and church functions.
Pate also says to check the records of various genealogical associations, such as the Jacksonville Genealogical Society or the Southern Genealogy Association. Both of these local groups have libraries.
The Jacksonville Genealogy Society also keeps what it calls Pedigree Charts. George Gallamore organizes the charts for the society, and members pass along information on names they research. “That way, anyone looking for information on the same family can find it,” says Gallamore.
Betty Burke of Ponte Vedra Beach does all of her research the old fashioned way. She says she’s never learned to operate a computer. She recommends getting as much information as possible from relatives. An 80-year old grandparent may have information on his grandparent, which would take a researcher back more than 100 years.
She also says to get in touch with aunts and cousins who may have information.
There are thousands of books in libraries, but Burke warns the books are kept by county rather than city and state. An atlas showing county names can be invaluable.
Burke also says to avoid being rigid with the spelling of names. She points out that many of our early ancestors were illiterate and did not know the correct spelling of their names.
John Pacetti says national origin can sometimes play a role, too. The original ancestor of the Pacetti family of St. Johns County was an Italian who married a Minorcan woman. His name was forced into both Catalan and Castillian Spanish so that, Pacetti says, he has found records that spell the name Pasetty, Pasetti, Paxety, and Pasety as well as the original spelling.
Burke warns that families frequently repeat given names from generation to generation. If a researcher finds more than one “William Jones” he should analyze ages to see if the age span makes sense.
The various U.S. censuses are also good sources of information. The first was taken in 1790, and it’s been taken every ten years after. The 1890 census burned, so it’s not available for research. Privacy laws keep census information secret for 70 years, so the latest available is the 1920 census.
Researchers say to not overlook deed and land grant records in the county courthouses. Some churches have libraries at their denominational headquarters. They also say to take a look at the lists of names on the war monuments which dot town squares and other public places. Each state has an archive where various records can be found.
Many genealogy groups teach newcomers how to do proper research. Some of the sites are on line, while others are taught in a classroom. They teach how to check military records, courthouse records, and church records.
Phil Stringer writes in “Getting Started in Genealogy and Family History” that for legal and financial reasons there are accepted standards for doing genealogy properly. He recommends learning the correct method.
Perhaps the largest single source of information is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). They have Family History Centers in most cities, including one on Ft. Caroline Road in Jacksonville. The Mormons believe ancestors can be saved through retroactive baptism. Members of the church have collected the names of millions of people around the world. Much of this information is available at the Family History Centers, and the church is testing asearchable database on line. The church also teaches correct methods of genealogical research.
Some Internet sites teach genealogy or offer help. The Genealogy Home Page (http://www.genhomepage.com) is one such site offering tips and lessons. Another is Treasure Maps (http://www.firstct.com/fv/tmaps.html), which bills itself as the how-to genealogy site. It offers steps to getting started, hints on deciphering old handwriting, and tips for writing a successful genealogical query.
New software available for both Mac and PCs can also help research. The Learning Company, for instance, publishes three packages that are aimed at three different experience levels. Family Tree Creator is targeted for beginners, Family Tree Maker is for mainstream users, and Ultimate Family Tree is for more advanced users. Many other programs are available at software stores.
Some researchers are using free software downloaded from the Internet. The SimTel software repository is a huge collection of freeware and shareware mostly for windows, msdos, and Unix/Linux machines. One way to reach it is through Oakland University’s site at http://www.acs.oakland.edu. Follow the links to the site’s search engine and type in genealogy. People with ftp programs can reach it at oak.oakland.edu and then following the links pub/simtelnet/win95 (or win3 or msdos) and then clicking on genealgy – yes, it’s misspelled to fit within the old eight character computer limitations.
The Genealogy Home Page also includes free software and shareware for downloading. It has more Mac software than the SimTel sites, and it also includes windows and Linux programs.
New sites come on line daily, so a search with Excite, Yahoo, AltaVista, or some other search engine may turn up others. Excite, for instance, links to more than 4500 genealogy sites.
Regardless of the tools genealogists use to conduct their searches, genealogy is just detective work. And sometimes they find surprises.
Sue Ann Sanders was delighted to find a photograph of her great grandfather sitting in a 1905 Oldsmobile on the banks of the St. Johns River.
John Pacetti says he learned an ancestor was the mayor of St. Augustine who surrendered the city to Federal troops during the War Between the States.
As Patricia Pate says, “Get involved in genealogy, and you’ll get involved in history, because it becomes your history.”
(Ed note – this article was written in 1999 for The Beaches Leader newspaper. Because they never paid me for the article, even though they published it, I’ve reclaimed the copyright.)