Some explanation of my motivation to compile this family history would be useful so you can judge my efforts. I have been trailing after my ancestors in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama for decades. My optimism drove me down the trails of repetitive tasks, inconclusive results and negative findings to identify and document our ancestors.
I am a combination of a genealogist -- one strictly interested in facts and dates -- and a family historian, using the facts to present an accurate history. I enjoy finding pieces of information, putting puzzles together in an orderly fashion and working together with like-minded researchers. Just as the complexity of history comes alive when you research a family tree, you also learn something about yourself as you learn about your ancestors lives -- in other words how to you react to their hard work, corruption, self sacrifice and egregious societal faults by knowing your ancestor left behind a thin trace of himself in his living descendants.
I started family research at a time in life -- age twelve -- way before people of respectable parentage generally take interest in such matters. I started on my ancestral quest because my ninety-four-year-old maternal great-grandmother Ella Virginia Auguste Perry was telling me fascinating stories and traditions about her immediate ancestors. Ella shared with me her wonderful family documents; her several family Bibles; and her Virginian history, culture and architecture books. When I returned home I wrote Ella asking for confirmations and more details about my ancestors. Much of my initial information on my near-term maternal line came from documents given me by her. I then expanded my family tree through knowledge acquired from my paternal grandfather Henry Dillard Winslett during visits to his home where he shared family documents with me and letters we wrote leading to my having three generations of lineage preceding him. Genealogy united me with the past and began to give me a growing family.
Four years later a Farm Journal magazine article further ignited my interest, and I underlined "Every generation that doesn't research a family genealogy makes it harder for the next generation to attempt one." With two generations of non-researchers between my great-grandmother and myself, I already had a lot of work to do. Between age sixteen when I moved overseas and age thirty-two my genealogical fact-finding was sporadic as I focused on my education and career. With the impending birth of my son, I began serious analysis so my son would not inherit even more research do.
In the mid 1980s I decided to travel to meet my elderly first cousin-twice-removed Elizabeth Harriet Perry because I understood she was a family historian and I wanted to solve the riveting mystery of the parents of my third great-grandmother Margaret Custis Russell Perry. I envisioned a quick overnight visit to her home in historic Staunton, VA from Alexandria, VA. The trip was undertaken against the judgment of my collective maternal family who said Elizabeth was not up to such a visit and thus it would not be proper, but actually they likely knew I would unlock the truth to that family secret.
Feisty eighty-year-old Elizabeth relished my visit and dramatically rekindled my ancestral interest that my great-grandmother Ella had started when I was younger. Elizabeth indeed had the answer to Margaret's parentage showing her father was not a Custis. To my surprise Elizabeth not only had this documentation but had an entire two cubic feet of original ancestral documents, including letters, statements and certificates for all our then-known shared ancestral lines going back numerous generations. To her everlasting credit, Elizabeth allowed me at this first meeting to borrow and copy every document, all originals of which have since her death apparently been lost according to her granddaughter.
That visit to Elizabeth's was the turning point in my ancestral research, and from then on with hard work there was one lucky break after another. With my first baby arriving, my mother rapidly dying from cancer and my family tree ever expanding, at age thirty-three I began to do consistent genealogy spade work for the first time. Purchasing my first computer and genealogy software, I spent the first several years studying the extensive materials acquired from Elizabeth and putting the information into my genealogical software database. After I had documented this information, I began to write to people and institutions and to visit libraries and other researchers on my lines.
I truly believe being on a genealogy quest gives me the right to drive past no trespassing signs, knock unannounced on front doors, and explore fields and farms -- and that belief has always worked in my favor. Thus, I have had a number of fascinating entries into ancestors' homes and properties, such as the Martin home in Carlaverock, Scotland; Ruff homes in Lexington, VA; and the Christian home in Providence Forge, VA. On my second trip to a Christian family cemetery on private land in the dead of winter I was armed with hoe and shears to combat any remaining huge spiders and overgrowth which had kept me from accessing the cemetery in the summer. Much to my delight, the new family living in the Col. Robert Christian (distant cousin born 1760) home in Providence Forge had meticulously cleaned the walled overgrown cemetery. After understanding my quest, the family gave me a grand tour of the house from the attic hand-hewn rafters on down. What an experience it was to stand in the large parlor with substantial original-glass windows on three sides where President John Tyler and Letitia Christian, our indirect-line ancestor, were married. This was the home which our great-grandmother used for her book plate.
Thankfully my love of genealogy extended beyond finding my own ancestors to helping others find theirs -- both ones we shared and ones we did not. Potentially a fine line always exists between thrilling and offending other researchers when making comments on their work. I better mastered how to approach others from my maternal sixth cousin Alice Ament Davidson Gedge, who offered the most gracious, genteel comments when faced with genealogical inaccuracies that I ever experienced. I also learned to temper my enthusiasm and offer that I had other data if they were interested and then follow up a piece at a time if they responded.
As always in family histories, it is certain there are mistakes of commission and many of omission. I challenge readers to fix the former and fill in the latter. The concept behind preparing this genealogy is for our family to know who they were -- researching our lineage to ensure the legacy of our forefathers does not die with our ancestors.
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