Monday, September 17, 2012

The Moment I Knew...

Today's blog post was inspired by Lynn Palermo, author of the "Armchair Genealogist" blog.  She has invited bloggers and genealogists to write the story of "the moment you knew" that genealogist was going to be an important part of our lives.  You can read all about it at this link:

Mom, Sister, Me at age 16, and Grammy
1976 ~ The summer I discovered genealogy
The United States Bicentennial celebration was a fun time for kids, but for a young teen in Massachusetts it was a wonderful year!  I remember the year 1975 to 1976 very well. We lived near lots of exciting events, like the recreated Battles of Lexington and Concord.  Our teachers were wonderful, and we studied the beginnings of the American Revolution in extra detail for the next few years.  One night my Dad saw my homework and said, “We had an ancestor in the Revolution”.  Of course, I wanted details, but he had none to give.  My Dad loved history, but he was very fuzzy on our ancestors.  He suggested I ask his Aunt Janet.

Unfortunately, poor Aunt Janet was getting along in years and her memory was even fuzzier than Dad’s.  She told me about her grandparents and I started to draw a family tree.  But I didn’t know how to draw a chart, and her memories of names seemed strange to me.  Who was that Revolutionary War soldier?  Our family name was Wilkinson, so why did everyone have Scots sounding names? (Donald, Janet, Andrew?)
About this time I heard about a new book called “Roots”.  It was a very adult book, and was more than 900 pages!  I was fascinated by how Alex Haley took a family story and used it as the basis to trace his genealogy.  I wanted to do the same with our family story about our mystery soldier.  After asking my history teacher I learned that there was a community college genealogy class nearby.  Somehow I talked my Dad into driving me to the night class every week, and somehow he agreed.  I think he was as curious as I about our family tree.

This was the year my grandmother came to live with us for a while.  I asked her about the Wilkinsons, and the mysterious Revolutionary War soldier, but she was unsure about her husband’s family.  She couldn’t answer my questions, but instead she opened up an entire new branch of the family to me.  Grammy had come through Ellis Island when she was just a teenager like me.  Not only that, she was a natural story teller.  Her stories about Yorkshire, and growing up in the slums of Leeds fascinated me.  My little family tree chart began to grow as I added what I learned about the Wilkinsons from Aunt Janet to what I learned about the Roberts family from Grammy.  By then I knew how to produce a real pedigree chart and family group sheets with this information.

One of the field trips we took for the night class was to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts.  It was a huge repository with over 20 miles of shelves filled with manuscripts, books and artifacts from early American history.  And it was within a few miles of our house, so I could ride there by bicycle in the summer!  For my first real research trip, and I had to get permission from the board of directors to even step inside since I was under 18.   I spent the summer pedaling back and forth, with my pedigree charts and pencils. 

There is something mysterious about genealogy that makes it addictive.  I’m sure it is the adrenaline rush that comes with each new discovery.  Along the way enough little nuggets of information fell into my lap that made me feel like whooping aloud in the hallowed halls of the American Antiquarian Society.  Each little victory made me excited to return to the AAS.  This was the moment I knew I wanted to be a genealogist.   The information from Grammy, and Aunt Janet and other family members went back far enough to start looking in the “tan books” of published Massachusetts vital records.   Ancestors they had told me about were born before the “tan books” ending dates of 1850.  From there I could go back one more generation, and then another, and then another… I was definitely "hooked!" 

As I drew out my family tree after every bicycle ride, I shared my discoveries with my father.  I found our first Revolutionary War soldier right away.  His name was inscribed “Major Andrew Munroe” on his gravestone.  Not only that, but the AAS had a book on the genealogy of the Munroe family that went right back to Scotland, and the clan records back to before the Pilgrims even arrived at Plymouth!  Every generation was interesting, and the names and stories fascinated me.  I couldn’t wait to tell my family a new story every night.  They were surprised that I found the missing Revolutionary War soldier, and that he was from Lexington of all places! 

The idea that our family grew exponentially, beyond the Wilkinsons and Roberts, and beyond the Scottish Munroe branch was exciting to me as a teenager.   I discovered early Puritans, Pilgrims and immigrants to Ellis Island from Yorkshire and other places in England.   My family tree had grown, and I could see that although I had made many discoveries, there were large blank branches left to be filled in on the big fan chart.   Summer vacation had ended, but my genealogy research had just begun…

Copyright 2012, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Very nice Heather, thanks for sharing your story with us.

  2. This post paints a delightful picture of you as a 16-year-old, bicycling to the American Antiquarian Society and (silently) whooping when you made discoveries there. You really started early in genealogy! How fortunate that your family cooperated, and that were so many interesting stories to find.

    1. Thank goodness most archives and genealogy libraries are less formal nowadays. I've heard a lot more whooping the last few years than I did in the 1970s!

  3. I've just discovered your blog here. I have been looking into my ancestry lately, as well. I can trace my maternal side (Ingersoll) back to England and it includes Nathaniel Hawthorne (I live in Salem, MA!) and I believe my paternal side (Lothrop) back to Yorkshire/England, as well. I haven't actually put it all down like you have but I plan to try. My Lothrop ancestor (Rev. John Lothrop) founded Barnstable, MA after coming over here to escape religious persecution with his band of followers.

  4. If you are from Salem and have Hathorne ancestors, we might share some cousins. Let me know what you dig up! I have several Cape Cod minister ancestors, too. It's my theory that minister's children tended to marry each other.