I have been taking a time-out from my VI research and spreading my wings a little researching my wife’s family (I figure she’ll be a lot more cooperative with my obsession if I get her family involved). Her family comes from southwestern Virginia, a little town in Russell County called Swords Creek. With the experience I gained doing my own family research, I knew I would be able to make decent headway fairly quickly, I had no idea how easy, and hard, it would be researching an all-American family. In the process, I’ve had occasion to think contrast the challenges we face as Virgin Island researchers. So in this post I thought I’d contrast the two.
Availability of Information – The Curse for VI Research
Genealogy has been an American pastime for nearly the last two centuries. Families with long American roots can often build on the work of generations of researchers who have collected data and stories on ancestors dating to colonial times. American families kept bibles with birth and death dates, many of which survive. By contrast, most island families have little knowledge of their ancestors. I was looking for a published genealogy for any VI family at one time so that I could add context to my own research. Sadly, it was harder than you would think. To date, I have only found a single (and recent) published genealogy of a Virgin Islands family, the Moorhead family of Sion Hill (no relation to my family). Journal articles are likewise rare. The only articles I have found were Gullach-Jensen’s in 1916 (which transcribed vital statistics) and the series from the 1980’s by Hoff and Barta on the De Windt families. Anecdotally, I have found that ancestor stories were not passed down, and most people had little understanding of where they came from. Superstitions even prevented much discussion about deceased ancestors (all the way to leading to neglect of cemeteries). My mother has said “no one ever talked about ancestors.” Consequently, all the ground I covered was new.
Possibly due to the interest American’s have always had with family history, there are numerous websites devoted to historical records of families and locations. While researching my wife’s family, I found a USGenWeb site for Russell County, VA that had transcriptions of courthouse records for birth, marriage and deaths back to 1853, tax rolls, and census pages. There are also sites for neighboring counties; where all the spouses come from. By contrast, there are only a few sites dedicated to Virgin Islands research. The Caribbean Genealogy Library on St Thomas has some small quantity of records online and the St Croix Landmarks society has even less. Few of them have been transcribed. The GenWeb site for the Virgin Islands hosts a couple of lists and appears to have gone fallow; I don’t think it’s been updated for years. I tried reaching the moderator but have never gotten an answer to my emails.
Lots of relatives. One of the first things I noticed about the typical 19th century rural Virginia family that is quite unlike the typical 19th century Virgin Islands family was size. While some Virgin Island families were quite large, most were not. Most families in my tree have 3-6 children. Only a very few have more than ten. In my wife’s tree it seems that for most of the 1800’s, 12-17 was the norm. Also, child mortality was much lower so most children grew up to have 12-17 children of their own. This has produced a large number of “cousins” alive today. Many of these people are researching their genealogy and have created websites to share information. I have run across several sites of these “cousins” that have propelled me back at breakneck speed down all of her branches. Contrast my St Croix and St Thomas experience. To date, I have not found a single website by a “cousin”.
Genealogical organizations and commercial companies have put a lot of effort into collecting and indexing US records. The US census is indexed to 1790 and images of all censuses are available on-line. In the virgin Islands, only the St Croix census has been indexed, and the St Thomas isn’t even available in digital form. If you want to see it you have to either go to Denmark to look at it or get microfilms from the FHL. Then you need to read every page. This is probably because it isn’t as commercially viable to publish VI documents. Which is a shame, given the history of the islands.
So, if you are researching in the US, particularly if your family has long roots in a particular area, you will have a much easier time than those of us who trace our lines to the sunny shores of the VI.
Primary Records – The Blessing for VI Research
While I have been astounded at the easy availability of information for the US, I have been disappointed at the relative lack of primary evidence. Especially when compared to the veritable cornucopia of documents I have found on my island ancestors. The Danish government was fastidious about record-keeping and huge volumes of records exist, even today. Between the Danish Archives, the NARA archives, and the FHL microfilms, there are hundreds of thousands of pages covering just this small area. While the government did not maintain vital statistics in the 18th and 19th centuries, the churches did. Most of those church books survive and have been microfilmed. The records from Russell County before 1853 have all been lost (courthouse fire). Few centralized collections exist.
For the Virgin Islands researcher there are detailed censuses for each person, free or slave, back to 1841 (the US only tracked heads of households). The VI censuses have more information about the people, including religion, citizenship, baptism dates. Each page is typically a separate residence, so often a page represents a family. Many of them carry signatures of the enumerated family, not just the enumerator. There are several other censuses carried out for special purposes, like the census of Free Blacks.
Other, less used records I have found include the Matricals, which allow me to trace residences year by year. I found report cards from the schools, ship arrivals and passenger lists, slave tax lists, burgher briefs, even a list of those swearing fealty to the English king when the British occupied the island in 1807. All of these primary records exist and shed light on the time and place. Nothing like this is available for my wife’s family. Nearly every piece of information (besides the census) is from a derivative work. The originals are scattered, lost, or destroyed.
So, while I’m finding that I can get answers much faster in her family than in mine, I am also finding that I’m getting much more context and fuller stories about my family. I feel I know my ancestors much better and I’m grateful for the vast amount of information I have, even if it’s like pulling teeth to get it.