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Local archives helps families uncover roots
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Started 12 years ago by a small group of researchers, the center now boasts more than 46,000 documents, photos and library books, some dating to the 1700s: marriage records, property assessments, slave receipts, letters, postcards, wills, maps, church records, board minutes, Confederate war bonds, school yearbooks, personal scrapbooks, voter registration lists, aerial photographs and family portraits.
Volunteers have been creating a searchable electronic database so researchers and genealogists can wade through the documents much faster.
Culled from residents’ attics and courthouse storerooms, the originals are carefully preserved in archival boxes and folders.
Every now and then, while paging through donated files, volunteers uncover a buried treasure, like the 1859 marriage certificate marking the union of Caroline resident Georgiana “Charlotte” Wickham and William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee, Robert E. Lee’s son.
“It’s fascinating to actually hold the documents in your hand,” said volunteer coordinator Barb Davidson. “Rooney Lee wrote that. That’s his handwriting.”
FINDING ‘DOOR OPENERS’
Visitors are often intrigued to discover that the same ancestors who appear stuffy and formal in old photos were arrested for crimes or operated a “house of entertainment.”
Many, like Simmons, are amateur genealogists who have just hit a brick wall.
“We really do try hard to help people find what they’re looking for,” said volunteer Diane Ballman, who helped Simmons. “Sometimes, it becomes our mission.”
Ballman remembers how frustrated Simmons was when the trail to one of her ancestors—John Henry Lewis, her great-great-grandmother Louisa’s young nephew—went cold. Then Ballman stumbled upon a court record from the early 1900s that set Simmons on the right track again.
The nephew, by then in his 50s, had sued his stepfather’s estate in a property dispute. Simmons used information in the court file, including the names of the man’s half siblings, to track down an entirely new branch of the family.
“I called her at work and said, ‘Um, I think I have something you might want,’” Ballman recalled. “She went nuts.”
But the most valuable find was that hand-lettered double register from 1866 that allowed Simmons to go back five generations by noting the name of the woman who last owned her family.
The Central Rappahannock Heritage Center stores thousands of this region’s historical documents and photographs in its quarters at the old Maury School, 900 Barton St. Volunteers at the nonprofit organization help researchers, genealogists and anyone else who’s simply curious track down key information from the past. The center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and 9 a.m. to noon on the first Saturday of each month. To volunteer at the center, become a member or get help with research, call 540/373-3704 or visit the center’s Web site at www.crhcarchives.org.
Marion Simmons of Maryland was able to trace her Caroline and Spotsylvania ancestors through slavery with help from the center. To see her research, visit her Web site at woodforkgenealogy.com.