Friday, September 8, 2017

Googling for Genealogical Gold

Though they still have to be vetted for accuracy, one hundred year old genealogies can be a thrill for a researcher who just found a pertinent surname within its covers. That's how things are going for me now, as I compare the notes from two Broyles family researchers with the documentation accessible online today.

That sort of grunt work doesn't play out well in blog posts. So let's switch things up. Kind of like a three ring circle, I'm bouncing between work on the Broyles family of South Carolina and eastern Tennessee, the Davis family of North Carolina and that same spot in eastern Tennessee, and the Tilson family of Virginia (and then that same spot in eastern Tennessee) which promises to lead me back to Mayflower Society eligibility. Where the three collide, I'm hoping to find documentation to either confirm or deny my suspicions—well, for now, let's just call them my hypotheses.

Since I've already scoured applicable online resources for old genealogy publications, I need to search in the other direction, too. Every day brings additions to the various online resources we now use for genealogical research—but how to find them? Mainstays of digital genealogy like FamilySearch or Ancestry are such go-to websites that they become the first—and sometimes the only—resources of significance offered up for additional inspection.

I'm really not satisfied to rely only on those resources. I want more. So I head to Google, choose my keywords carefully, and start searching. There are literally hundreds of genealogical hidey-holes where yesterday's random-actors-for-genealogical-kindness parked their special tidbits. While inconvenient in and of themselves—some of these web resources may be old typewritten lists parked on the back lots of outdated sites like the old Rootsweb or somewhere in the GenWeb system—if the one which has your precious data is part of that byzantine maze, wouldn't you want to find it?

And so I go through my list of synonyms and surnames, typing them into the dialog box at Google and hoping something on page two or three of the results will contain just what I'm looking for.

I say page two or three, because I know how search engine optimization can skew results to serve up the most popular sites first. And those popular sites are precisely the ones I don't want to see. Why? Because I've already reviewed that material while I was working on those big sites like Ancestry or FamilySearch. Remember, I want something more.

This is a messy process, to be sure. Tedious. And void of any guarantees. But if something comes up, I'm ecstatic. Remember, I'm only doing this because I can't find the material I want anywhere else online. And I sure can't drop everything else this morning and catch the nearest flight to Tennessee.

One of my research questions right now is to figure out just how the Davis and Tilson families met up. Remember, I don't know the parents' names for Mayflower direct descendant Rachel Tilson's husband, James Davis. I'm not even super sure about the details I've received from others about this guy—that he was born in 1795 in "Washington County," North Carolina.

Remember, along the migratory pathways for all three families—Davis, Tilson, and Broyles—converging in Washington County, northeastern Tennessee shortly after this time, there was also a Washington County in Virginia and one in North Carolina. And that one in North Carolina wasn't even where the current Washington County is located today. Due to the geopolitical situation of the era, that James Davis who was born in Washington County, North Carolina, and who died in Washington County, Tennessee, could have been a man who was born and died in the very same place.

So, I went exploring on Google. My main question was to find any material on the history of that old Washington County in Virginia—the one where that Holston Valley region had a pre-Revolutionary church called the Saint Clair's Bottom Primitive Baptist Church. I wanted to find some contact information for a historian or someone knowledgeable about that location, prior to 1800.

In the nooks and crannies of the Internet, it is only Google which can ferret out these tucked away gems, and in my searching, I found one. It is now known as the Gordon Aronhime Papers, and they are housed in a collection called the Southwest Virginia Card File at the Library of Virginia in Richmond.

Every now and then, you can run across the collections of people like Gordon Aronhime. They are dedicated researchers who set about to systematically document everything there is to know about a very tiny sliver of the universe of human knowledge. In Mr. Aronhime's case, that sliver was focused on the upper Holston-Clinch River area of southwest Virginia during the years from 1770 to 1795.

The entire body of knowledge preserved by Gordon Aronhime is kept on a set of over four thousand index cards, now scanned and available online at the Library of Virginia. The data include dates of birth and death, marriage information, lists of some children, abstracts of wills and some other biographical data. Because the information was handwritten on the cards, it employed a shorthand system of descriptors, so the collection includes a listing of abbreviations commonly used in the collection.

In addition, since a good number of the settlers in this area later migrated to nearby northeastern Tennessee, the collection includes a listing of several of these men, as well as listings on local forts, mills, ministers—and even some details on the 1780 Battle of King's Mountain.

That wasn't the only discovery I made while exploring the lesser-known sites discussing the topic of my current interest. Deep within the pages of the Virginia GenWeb site, I found a listing of marriages from Washington County, dated 1782 to 1820. Sure enough, looking at the alphabetized entries for the letter "T," I found several marriages for my Tilson family—although nothing of interest for my Davis ancestor.

No problem with that, though. The search is far from over. Just knowing that these hidden nuggets are out there to be found—with diligence and lots of patience—encourages me to keep trying my hand at googling those search terms.

Above: Sample card from the Gordon Aronhime Papers at the Library of Virginia shows entries for my fourth great-grandfather, Peleg Tilson, including details on his marriage, land transactions and removal to Washington County, Tennessee.


  1. Replies
    1. I love finding collections like this--tucked away in some secret spot in a library far away!

      On the flip side, I wish there was a simpler way to search all the diverse private holdings of libraries. Sometimes, these collections are catalogued behind a firewall, invisible to the "eyes" of the bots helping Google be what it is in the search world.

  2. Very interesting info on Aronhime. I am the 6th great grandson of John Broddy...a slave owned by Col. William Campbell. Aronhime researched the controversy "Shelby vs Campbell". Need to locate Aronhime's records on this topic. Portions are quoted in The Smithfield Review, Vol. VII, 2003, page 42. Assistance requested. My correct email is phone number 1-509-948-6416 in Washington State. Thank You.

  3. The unknown above is Arthur T. Broady. Grew up in Southwest Virginia, attended Emory & Henry College and served on the Board of Trustees for 8 years. I am researching family history and connection to southwest Virginia. Interested in hearing from anyone with info. Thanks.


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