This is not my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. This is Brigadier General William Woodford, friend of George Washington and one of the heroes of the American Revolution. He died at the age of 46 in 1780 on a British prison ship off the coast of New York. He is buried at Trinity Church in Manhattan, the final resting place of many historic figures in American history.
I am not related to General Woodford through my father, Paul Woodford (at least not directly). Most likely my ancestor is Private William Woodford, an illiterate infantryman who survived the American Revolution and lived out his life in West Virginia. It is likely that most West Virginia Woodfords, including my father, are descended from this foot soldier.
I came across this story as I was researching my family tree on Ancestry.com. As I traced back my father’s paternal line, I picked up General William Woodford through one of Ancestry.com’s “hints.” It took a few hours before I realized that I didn’t have the right William Woodford. After comparing birth and death dates and the names of spouses and children, I settled on Private Woodford as my most likely ancestor.
Which got me to thinking about why so many people are interested in their family tree. For some, it is the desire to identify their family’s country of origin or to pinpoint when their ancestors came to America. Others may want to verify a family story about being related to someone famous. And there are people like my Aunt Margaret, who want to lay claim to a historical period, such as the American Revolution.
I’ve always been curious about my father. He married my mother Shirley when he was 54, and said very little about what his life had been like up until that point. But every once in a while, when he was in a good mood, he would tell stories about his youth. Vivid, dramatic, stories, that drew out his West Virginia accent. He grew up rich, in a large house with servants. His mom drove a Duesenberg, and when he was 18 he drove an Auburn. But his family lost it all, so he said, when the stock market crashed in 1929.
Building my family tree confirmed none of these claims. In 1910, the year my dad was born, the Census recorded that his father Charles was a laborer. Ten years later, following Census data, his dad was working in a transfer garage and taking on boarders at home to supplement his income. By 1930 (the year after the stock market crash), Charles was the manager at the garage and still renting his home. And at age 54, he was divorced from my dad’s mother Daisy and living alone in a hotel.
As a historian, I have been thinking about the value of Ancestry.com as a research tool. The benefits are many. Anyone who wants to build their family tree can begin researching their history without needing the skills of a genealogist or historian. You can access hundreds of historical records without the time and expense of visiting an archive. With the information you gather, you will discover new connections to the family records you already have, including photographs, diaries, birth and death certificates, and family stories.
But like any research tool, Ancestry.com isn’t perfect. The availability of historical records before 1850 is extremely limited. The National Archives only recently released the 1940 Census, now fully indexed and searchable online. So the richest information barely covers the period between the Civil War and World War II. And in my case, my dad only appears in Denver for the first time in the 1940 Census, more than 20 years before he would meet my mother and start a family there. The 1950 Census won’t be released for another decade. Since dad didn’t tell me stories about his life as a young man after he moved to Colorado and before he met my mom, thirty years remain unaccounted for.
The feature that allows you to build your family tree by pulling information from other trees makes the job quick and easy. But the truth is that crowdsourcing genealogical research is inherently risky. In my case, I came across more than a dozen family trees that included General Woodford. Only one person resisted the urge and stuck with Private Woodford. The birth dates of these two men are within a few years and several of the trees listed two wives. It’s easy enough to tell yourself a story that makes it all work out.
Ancestry.com is fun and a great way to lay the groundwork for your family tree. But don’t stop there. Do more research and verify the details using other sources. Don’t worry about finding fame, fortune, or the Mayflower. Most of all, share what you find with other members of you family and listen to the stories they tell, while you still can.