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Genealogy conference to help residents uncover their past

Barbara Dickinson and Ben Ritter look at the screen of a microfilm reader
Barbara Dickinson, left, assistant archivist at Handley Library and president of the Shenandoah Valley Genealogical Society, and Ben Ritter, a local historical researcher, look at the screen of a microfilm reader at the library. Researchers around Virginia have hit road blocks over the years from records that were destroyed in fire and war. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Dickinson confers with Joseph Legg
Dickinson confers with Joseph Legg of Maryland about some research he is doing for a church in Kentucky. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Lord Fairfax’s land grant from 1753
Lord Fairfax’s land grant from 1753 is kept at the library. Dennis Grundman/Daily


By Garren Shipley -- gshipley@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- Digging for a family's past can be a rewarding pastime. But when the search comes to Virginia, it can get frustrating.

Getting past historical roadblocks in the Old Dominion is one of the topics at this year's Virginia Genealogical Society conference next week at Winchester Medical Center.

With a history going back to the 1600s, Virginia is a rich place to do genealogy research, according to Dorothy Boyd-Bragg, a professor of history at James Madison University, and one of this year's speakers.

"The records go back so much further," she said.

But digging through records in the commonwealth has its share of unique pitfalls.

"Just because you're an expert doing research in one state doesn't mean you're an expert doing research elsewhere," she said. "Each state has its peculiarities."

"I'm going to be talking about things you often have to learn the hard way in Virginia," she said. For example, how to deal with a "burnt" county.

"What do you do when the records are gone?" Boyd-Bragg said.

Long before local records were stored on computers and backed up off-site, the county courthouse was the repository for all things local.

Land records, wills and many other records vital to family researchers were kept on paper at the county seat. But Virginia has seen its share of wars and disasters, and courthouses have suffered.

Researchers in Prince George County hit a brick wall when they try to reach past the Civil War, as most of the records were burned, according to a survey of records done by the Library of Virginia.

Henrico County is one of the oldest in Virginia, founded in 1634. But all the records before 1655 are missing, with only a few to be found before 1677.

Record-keeping took another hit during the Revolutionary War, and all Circuit Court records were destroyed as the city of Richmond burned at the hands of retreating Confederates.

Other counties lost their records to fires and floods that struck courthouses over the decades.

One trick is to find the local city or county's Free Negro Register, she said.

Starting in 1793, the General Assembly required emancipated slaves and other free people of African descent to register with the local government and carry their "free papers" with them at all times.

While those were no longer used after the Civil War, today they're an invaluable resource. Some local governments, such as Charles City County, have actually made the records available on the Internet.

When birth, marriage and death records have fallen to fire, sometimes the register is a place to keep going.

"The Registry of Free Negroes often records when an individual was emancipated, and that indicates when someone died," she said.

Winchester and Frederick County were hotly disputed during the Civil War, but the vast majority of their records remain intact.

"We are very fortunate that we're not a burnt county," said Barbara Dickinson, the president of the Shenandoah Valley Genealogy Society.

The records didn't survive because of goodwill from either the Union or Confederate troops though.

Rather, "it changed hands too many times, [and] both sides thought they might need those records," she said. The archives at Handley Library hold a large number of resources for family researchers, she said.

This year's conference will focus on the migration of settlers into -- and later, out of -- the Shenandoah Valley.

Long a migratory path for indigenous peoples, immigrants used the valley as a path to their final destinations.

"[Migration through the Shenandoah Valley] was particularly important for groups like the Germans and the Scots-Irish," Dickinson said.

While the Scots-Irish continued through the valley, many German families stayed.

"The Shenandoah Valley is a real highway to the west," she said.

The conference will also include a discussion of using modern technological tools like Google Earth, Internet-based mapping software, to research family histories.

"It's got something for everybody," Boyd-Bragg said. "If you have an interest in genealogy, this is a good place to start."

This year's conference is scheduled for Oct. 9 and 10 at the Conference Center at Winchester Medical Center. Registration is $40 for members, $50 for non-members and includes a boxed lunch. For more information, visit the society's web site at www.vgs.org.



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