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Genealogy Lessons Learned While Decorating the Christmas Tree

1.  Location is key.

Christmas Bells
Christmas Bells

Some ornaments must be hung in specific places – in front of a light, deep in the tree, near the end of a branch – for best effect.  If you don’t put them in the right place, the tree can look wonky.  Similarly, you can’t force an ancestor into your tree in the wrong place.  Don’t try to make your Uncle Jim his own grandfather.  Watch those dates.  And if great-grandmother Mary lived in Rockville, Virginia all her life, but isn’t there in the 1900 census, you have some investigating to do!  Don’t assume she was just left out.  Maybe she was in a place other than the one you expect.

2.  Sometimes, the old, cracked, and broken are the most interesting.

Ornament from my parents' first tree
Ornament from my parents’ first tree

Sure, all the pretty ornaments are great, and can make your tree look quite elegant.  But the most meaningful are the old ones, which are gonna show a little loving wear and tear.  Memberships in the DAR and the First Families of Virginia are terrific – good for you!  But come on, the story about your great-aunt’s first husband getting shot in a card game is way more interesting (true story from a friend’s genealogy).

3.  There’s always gonna be a blank spot you just can’t fill.

The blank spot
The blank spot

No tree is perfect.  The branches don’t always form a perfect pyramid for you to decorate.  And you don’t always have an ornament that just fits that weird gap.  I have two of those gaps in my family tree (known in the genealogy world as a brick wall, but that term doesn’t fit my Christmas tree metaphor).  Keep searching … somewhere, someday, you will find the perfect ornament for that spot.

4.  Don’t ignore the back of the tree.

Back of the Tree
Back of the Tree

Unless your tree sits in the center of your room, you are surely tempted not to decorate the back.  Who’s gonna see it?  Remember, though, that trees aren’t solid things.  You can see through the branches to other branches, and light shines from the back to the front.  Sometimes, bits of information you deem unimportant can cast illumination on something that’s critical to your immediate search.  Don’t ignore any of it.

5.  Sometimes, you have to start all over.

2012 tree, 2.0
2012 tree, 2.0

Last Tuesday, I came down with bronchitis.  After spending the better part of three days in bed, I came downstairs to find that all of the lights had gone out on our fully decorated tree, except for one strand in the back on the bottom.  My poor husband has been working in overdrive, taking care of me and several projects from work, so I just couldn’t ask him to do anything about it, but I was crushed.  Finally, yesterday afternoon, I dragged myself off the sofa, un-decorated half the tree and found the dead strand.  We re-strung a working strand, and ta-daa! Lovely tree once more.  Had to re-decorate, but it’s all pretty and sparkly again.  I think my metaphor is clear here, yes ???

6.  Some of my ornaments are really goofy, but I love them.

Cowboys ornaments
Cowboys ornaments
Garlic ornament - yes, garlic!
Garlic ornament – yes, garlic!
Spider web - from my grandmother, when I worked at Univ. of Richmond
Spider web – from my grandmother, when I worked at Univ. of Richmond

I have several ornaments from a unicorn phase in my twenties.  I also have a bunch of Dallas Cowboys ornaments … what?? You know you have your team on your tree somewhere.  Our family has a beloved ornament that is a horse’s … ummm … rear end, painted on a big sand dollar.  But every one of those ornaments goes on the tree every year, because they are MINE!  They represent who I am, and who I was, and where I was, and who loved me enough to get me something small when they were on vacation.  Likewise, my family tree may not be dramatic or noteworthy, but they are mine.  Salt-of-the-earth farmers in Virginia, some of whom fought for their country, and some who just lived basic, everyday lives.  Nothing shiny or sparkly, but very special to me.

7.  My grandma’s ornaments are my favorites.

Handmade by Grandma, #1
Handmade by Grandma, #1
Handmade by Grandma, #2
Handmade by Grandma, #2
Handmade by Grandma, #3
Handmade by Grandma, #3

No real genealogy point here … just the warm feelings I get when I look at the three ornaments my grandmother, Irma Frances Elliott Shelton, made for me.

Merry Christmas, y’all ….


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Georgia State Archives

I can already hear what some of you are asking – your family is from Virginia, you don’t even research at the Georgia State Archives … why do you care if they close?

1 – I’m a citizen of the state of Georgia, and have been for over 25 years.  What happens here affects me.

2 – It isn’t just genealogical information that will become unavailable, although that would be a disastrous blow all by itself.  Tax information is stored at the Georgia State Archives, along with land surveys and the legislative record.  How would you search a land title with the archive available to you for only 2 hours, by appointment only, and with only one person to assist you in locating the records (the proposed “compromise”)?  And what about government transparency?

3 – Georgia would become the ONLY state with no open archives – that’s just plain embarrassing.

4 – The Official Code of Georgia MANDATES open records – it is the law.  The law.

This article, written by Vivian Price Saffold, a board member of the Georgia Genealogical Society, sets out the issues much more eloquently than I can.  So please read her comments, and then contact the governor, the Secretary of State, and your state representatives and senators, and let them know that closing the Georgia State Archives is simply unacceptable.


It is Saturday morning. People are enjoying the first day of autumn. For many people it was a day of football games, yard work and relaxation.

Others – professional researchers and amateur family sleuths – are in Morrow at the Georgia Archives. They arrived before the doors opened at 8:30 a. m. and will leave reluctantly at 5 p.m. They are working frantically to take advantage of one of only two days available to them.

After today there are five more Saturdays until Nov. 1, the date Secretary of State Brian Kemp has set for the closing of the Archives to the public.

Yes, Secretary Kemp said people would be able to get into the Archives by appointment. That was the day before he announced that seven of the 10 employees were being terminated. Remaining are the director (who came to the Archives from Alabama in May), the building superintendent and one excellent, veteran archivist.

That means there will be one person who knows the collection well enough to handle research questions effectively.

Research in Georgia requires access to the Georgia Archives. Many of the records cannot be found anywhere else. Thorough research takes time. How many people will be lucky enough to get appointments? How long will each person be allowed to stay? Will a researcher wait for a month to get an appointment, then be asked to leave when his two hours are up? Two hours is hardly worth the drive from anywhere in metro Atlanta, certainly not from other areas of the state.

How many professionals will default on contracts because they cannot meet deadlines or complete work at all?

A great many research requests actually come from state government. It is not an unreasonable assumption that those requests will have priority. How will that impact the ability of the private citizen to get an appointment?

Although Secretary Kemp obviously disagrees, such an appointment system does not appear to meet Georgia’s legal mandate (Georgia Public Records and Open Records Act 50-18-70) that requires that records be “open for a personal inspection by any citizen of this state at a reasonable time and place…”

Pointing fingers of blame is not a useful exercise, and there is plenty to go around – even to the citizens of Georgia. Great numbers of Georgians responded quickly, purposefully and commendably to Secretary Kemp’s fateful announcement on Sept. 13. During the last three years, however, as the staff and hours shrunk, only a few diehards haunted the capitol.

Ironically, at a well-attended ceremony last week Gov. Nathan Deal proclaimed October Archives Month in Georgia. He delighted the crowd of supporters with the announcement that he would find the money to keep the Archives open. The announcement made the Governor the hero (for the moment, at least) and had to have chafed the Secretary of State, who has been taking considerable heat on this issue.

Many assume that the Archives has been “saved” and the battle is over.

But, what exactly, does the Governor have in mind? Will he find enough emergency stop-gap funding to keep the Archives open and make it possible for Secretary Kemp to reinstate the seven employees? Will he keep the Archives open, but with only three employees? Archives employees serve at the pleasure of the Secretary of State. The Secretary is a constitutional officer, not an employee of the Governor.

Will the Governor figure a way to re-work the budget he submits to the legislature, thereby allowing the Archives to close and re-open next spring?

If the Nov. 1 deadline passes with no resolution, the seven will be gone. Even if a way is found to save those valuable employees, many of them are likely to leave before then. This would result in a tremendous loss of institutional knowledge. It would take new-hires, even qualified archivists, many years to learn the collection well enough to be effective.

Athens librarian Laura W. Carter made an analogy to the retail store where the clerk is not familiar enough with the merchandise to understand the request or find what is needed. Such a scenario is made all the worse at the Archives because the “customer” (the Georgia citizen) already owns the “merchandise. “

If the Archives closes, Georgia will the only state without public access hours. Even if service remains the same, Georgia will have the fewest hours of any archives in the nation.

Secretary Kemp opted to take all of the mandated three percent cut from the Archives, instead of spreading the grief to all of his divisions. The Archives needs a relatively small amount – $730,000 – to maintain the current level of service. That amounts to a little more than 13 cents for every Georgia citizen.

Just like Georgia families, the government must prioritize expenditures. Finding $730,000 certainly won’t move the Archives to the top of the state spending list. But it will be enough to tide over this important agency – perhaps until the state’s economic picture improves.

The future of the Archives remains uncertain. Advocates need to hold Gov. Deal to his promise. They need to urge Secretary Kemp to keep the seven, at least until after the legislative session, and contact their local legislators to express their support for a reasonable funding solution.


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When I began researching my mother’s family line, I was rolling right along, because her family was the one I knew the most about.  My mother’s maiden name? check – Janet Shelton.  Her mother’s maiden name? check – Irma Frances Elliott [who would absolutely kill me for putting that on the internet, if she had lived long enough to encounter the internet].  Her mother’s maiden name? check – Carrie Frances Mills.  I figured that was enough information to really kick off that branch of the tree, so I started filling in the blanks on Ancestry.com and watching all of those little leaves pop up and start waving for my attention.  I didn’t know the name of Carrie’s mother, but it didn’t take long to find it.  Pocahontas Ann Elliott … wait, WHAT???? [insert sound of screeching brakes here]  POCAHONTAS ???

That can’t be right – I never heard that – ever – not even a hint!  So I started following some of those little leaves, and every single one of them led to the same conclusion:  my great-great-grandmother’s name was Pocahontas Ann Elliott [a distant cousin to the Elliotts her daughter eventually married].  I found U.S. census records and even a couple of other Ancestry trees that seemed to confirm it.  Pocahontas Ann Elliott, born in Pittsylvania County, Virginia in 1857 —  I could not WAIT to call my mother.

“Mom!  You never told me your great-grandmother’s name was Pocahontas!”
“It wasn’t – that’s silly.”
“Yes it was … I found it on-line.”
“Then you found the wrong person.  I never heard that in all my life.”
“I’m not kidding. She’s listed in census forms and everything.”
“I am absolutely certain that’s the wrong person.  No one ever, ever told me my great-grandmother’s mother was named Pocahontas, and I know my grandmother would have mentioned something like that.”
“But Mama …”
“Nope – it’s the wrong person.  Keep looking. ”

So I did.  I ordered records from the Virginia Department of Vital Records.  The birth certificate of Carrie Frances Mills lists her mother as Pocahontas Ann Elliott.  There is a birth certificate for Pocahontas Ann Elliott, listing the same parents I had found for her – Samuel L. Elliott and Nancy Hutson Elliott.  There is also a marriage certificate showing Pocahontas Ann Elliott marrying John Henry Mills.  Yep – it all checked out.  I could not WAIT to call my mother.

“Mom! HA! I was RIGHT!”  [I *LOVE* to be right.  Ask my husband.]
“Right about what?”
“Your great-grandmother’s name was Pocahontas Ann Elliott Mills.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I have documents that prove it,” and told her about them in detail.
“Well … then I guess it has to be right.  Wonder why nobody ever told me?”

We still have no idea where the name came from, or why she was named that.  Her brothers have perfectly normal names – John and William.  I assume she may have been called Ann, but she is not listed as Ann in anything I can find – it all says Pocahontas.  I know she’s not related to THE Pocahontas (of Virginia history fame), but Samuel and Nancy obviously liked the name enough to tag their daughter with it.

I don’t have any pictures of her, but am trying to coordinate with some of Mama’s cousins to figure it out and see if anyone has a photo.  I’m also not certain where she is buried – I’m dying to know what her gravestone says.  In fact, I don’t even know when she died.  She was in the 1900 U.S. census, but I don’t see anything after that.

Still … Pocahontas.  Terribly cool.

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I’m 500 miles away from my Daddy today, but we’ll talk, as many fathers and daughters do.  We’ll catch up on what we’ve both been up to, how he’s feeling, and what the weather is like up there and down here.  I’ll tell him about our trip to New York, and he’ll listen politely, probably thinking that he’s glad he didn’t have to go.  He’ll ask when I’m coming home, and I’ll tell him I’m not sure, but I hope it’s soon — and I do.  I’ll tell him I’m not coming unless he promises to make his special ribs, and he’ll chuckle.

My daddy does so many things well.  He’s still, at age 80, great with his hands.  He does woodworking, takes care of their house, and has discovered late in life that he’s a fantastic “grill chef” – ha!  He was always like that – when he decided he wanted to do something, he’d study it, talk to people who did it, and figure it out … then do it.  I think my brother and sister and I all inherited a bit of that.  My brother does it with cars and house stuff, I’ve done it with jewelry and genealogy, and my sister does it in raising an amazing kid.  As we were growing up, Daddy built us swings, repaired our bikes, took us camping, introduced us to the Outer Banks, and loved us a lot.  Life came along and shook things up a bit, but none of that changes the fact that our childhood featured a father who was present and loved us, and he still does.  I love you, too, Daddy.

I also want to remember my father-in-law today.  He passed away last summer, after several declining years with Alzheimer’s.  I only had the privilege of knowing him for about 20 years, but those 20 years were a gift.  He was a gentle man, and a gentleman.  He loved baseball and a good laugh.  And he adored his son … so do I.  We miss you, Bill.

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“Cousin bait” … I love it !!  When I began working on my family’s history a little over a year ago, I began reading several genealogy blogs, and ran across that phrase a lot … cousin bait.  Typically, it’s about putting information out there so it can be found by cousins you haven’t met yet.  So here we go … straight and to the point:

If your last name is Stewardson, Shelton, Childress, Pettit, Elliott, or Mills, and you are from Virginia, get in touch.  Let’s share what we have, what we know, what we don’t know, and what seems odd.  Other names of interest include Drumheller, Noel, Saunders, Leadbetter, Parker, Hines, McGhee, and Crider.

And don’t even get me started on the in-laws … Marion, Brown, Hazel, Hatfield, Hancock, Hopkins, Clements, Henning, Montgomery, Wiise, McFarland . . . .  well, okay, but save it for another post.

I’ll blog about what I’ve found, what I’m looking for, where I think it is, where it wasn’t, and how frustrating it is to try to search Virginia roots while living in Georgia.

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