14 May 2007: Genealogy and the Settlement of Jamestown VA

Some years ago, I was researching several early Virginia settlers.  Some were listed as Jamestown settlers–this is not easy proof!  The “killing times” were often,  so the total number of people who arrived and their surnames, even when the names are the same, are not consistent.  Some early families are still not proven across the ocean to their origins.  However, it was a thrill for me to stand on the banks of the James River, where it empties into the bay, and ponder those early arrivals who came with so much hope and a continuing vision of the eternal promise of America.

Queen Elizabeth II acknowledged their Englishness by coming to Virginia last week to celebrate this 400th anniversary.  These settlers spoke English, they brought English law and customs, they sailed in English ships.  And they fanned out along the rivers establishing a plantation society, patterned on their English life experience at home.

“In the beginning, all was Virginia.”  This is the title of an article written by Dr. Donald J. Martin and published in February1979 in the Journal of Genealogy.  By permission, I reprinted the article in my Virginia Research Scrapbook, Vol.  III.      And I have referred to that important article numerous times for key titles  that would give me better understanding of Virginia life and thus, greater success in genealogy research for the early settlers.  And I recommend the article to all of you.  Add it to your summer study list.

Dr. Martin summarizes the history of the commercial venture that was Virginia.  The issuance of charters, the provision for land grants, and the persons who got them.  He describes the convicts, and indentured servants, and slaves who worked the lands.  He lists the principal genealogy sources and acknowledges the record losses.  And he provides extensive bibliographies–many titles long forgotten and overlooked by today’s genealogists.

Big Mistake!  Huge!  These older works were written by men and women who understood the English land system and the legalities that underlay the complex property records this system generated.  Few modern genealogists understand the records they search.  So at conferences and seminars, they tell you to “Relax, you don’t have to read all the words in the documents.”  Not so.  Their transcripts print double pp for the Old English S.  They lump together Winna Daniels and Owen McDaniel as the same person.  Not so.  Or they create two distinct families of the Daniels and the McDaniels where they are siblings belonging  to the same set of parents.  They seek origins among the Irish and Scottish, when they come from Wales.
Since 1979, when Dr. Martin reviewed the printed stuff, most of the early Virginia county records have been transcribed and printed with every-name indexes and indexes to named land tracts and watercourses.  Deeds, wills,  marriage bonds and returns, court orders, tax rolls, militia papers, and many family Bibles can be searched quickly and at nominal expense.

Ancestry.com includes some of these printed works, although not all, in their numerous  databases for online access.  So it is easy to forget that not all counties are transcribed, and not all records transcribed are available online.  It is easy for you to draw incorrect conclusions because it is easy to assume that all the data are there.

Dr. Martin concludes his 12 page article with these words:

Research of any kind is painfully slow and laborious, and not infrequently expensive.  Genealogical research is no exception.  There is, alone, a tremendous amount of published information which must be meticulously studied before we at last find ourselves on the frontier of the unknown.  In the case of Virginia, this means reviewing over 350 years of publications as if we were the first to read them.  This may take years, but the documents of the past have an infinite number of messages and clues for us; we have no choice but to digest them.  Not to use all available sources to determine the void in existing works is to defeat the goal of research:  to add to existing knowledge. 

No stone can be left unturned.  To deprive ourselves of the highest standards of completeness is to ignore material which may actually lead us in another direction–the right direction.  Incomplete work reflecting premature and sometimes erroneous conclusions may actually be worse than useless because it may lead others astray.  Inaccurate documentation sometimes goes undiscovered for generations.

The payoff for this self-discipline is real progress, and that I believe, is what it’s all about.

A new study of the original Virginia settlers is underway.  William Thorndale, Salt Lake City, UT is carefully researching those who came to Virginia before 1625–their lives in America, their origins in the British Isles, their relationships among themselves and to those left behind.  Watch this Genealogy News Sheet for the heads up on his project.  It is thorough, accurate to a fault, and carefully documented.

As most of you know, I just completed the My Ancestors Found Research Retreat on American Land Records.  And without exception, all of the researchers that I personally consulted with, wanted documentation for their conclusions.  Some were beginners, some were seasoned researchers, and they wanted to document and prove each link in their genealogy.  What fun it was to help them find their documents!  And to share in the excitement of their own personal finds!

You might consider signing on for the next Retreat, or a local seminar or Jamboree offered by My Ancestors Found.com.  Your favorite genealogist of choice, Arlene Eakle

P.S. “In the beginning, all was Virginia.” William Byrd.  Even those who sailed for Plymouth were on their way to the northern section of Virginia.  Keep that in mind as you near the water’s edge on your way to origins:  Lest you be lead astray.  More on Virginia coming this month.

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