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Tuesday, January 31, 2023



Oct. 14, 2001 – St. John resident Myrna George is playing detective, but instead of looking for nefarious characters, she's hot on the trail of her family history.
She and about 80 million others across the country are hard at work on this task. There are so many people looking for their roots that Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch convinced his Senate colleagues to designate October as Family History Month.
"Experts say that in the United States, genealogy is now the second most popular hobby next to gardening," Hatch said in a news release.
Utah, of course, is the home of the world's largest family history research center, which is run by the Mormons.
While George is finding it slow going, she, like other family historians across the territory, will not be deterred.
She first started looking when she realized that, unlike most island residents, she had only her immediate family to count as kin. Her family came from Anegada.
"There's a lack of information. No one wrote anything down," she said.
So far, she's learned that her grandmother's grandmother, which means her great-great grandmother, was an African princess and that her great-grandfather was a Faulkner from Northern Ireland.
And she's turned up a cousin on St. Thomas, Nadine Marchena. The two spent three years corresponding and phoning until a mutual friend finally introduced them at St. John's July 4th Celebration.
Marchena said she learned of the family connection through a St. Croix family member, who told her she also had family on St. John.
David Knight, a historian by trade, said that black people now see that it is possible for them to research their family trees. He has uncovered documents such as the 1803 census of free colored residents in Charlotte Amalie, published as "St. Thomas 1803: Crossroads of the Diaspora," that shows many surnames still in use today.
"Once you can imagine an ancestor in a particular time period, it makes history come alive," he said.
Marchena first got interested when she worked on a school project. She trekked off to Enid Baa Library, where the late June Lindqvist helped her find the right resources. Marchena said she and her grandmother, retired children's librarian Beulah Smith Harrigan, often make trips to the British Virgin Islands to search for family documents.
"I spend a lot of time in churches," Marchena said, discussing how moved she was when she found her first family church record.
Carol Wakefield at the Whim Plantation Museum on St. Croix has gathered a treasure trove of resources. The museum library has the Danish West Indies census records from 1840 until 1911. While most of those records are of St. Croix residents, there are some from other islands.
The museum library also has the 1917 census for the entire territory; some special census records, including those of the free colored in 1831 and 1832; St. Croix church records; and some very early tax information.
Wakefield has compiled files on some St. Croix families. She said that people researching their family roots are usually willing to share information with others bent on the same task.
She suggested that people looking for their ancestors start by interviewing family members who are still alive. Inquire about brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, their parents, and their grandparents.
"It's a wonder to have a family member with a good memory," she said.
Wakefield suggests asking them to pull out old documents -– birth certificates, death certificates, Bibles and the like -– to document their oral history.
Another excellent resource today is the Internet. "Genealogy internet sites are some of the most popular sites on the world wide web," Hatch said.
Marchena said she uses the Internet in her research all the time. She said her searches turned up an ancestor mentioned in a ship captain's log. The man had been richly reward in cash for his rescue of some people who foundered on the treacherous Anegada Reef.
A site called www.rootsweb.com has bulletin boards chock-a-block with messages from people -– mostly on the mainland — who are looking for family in the Virgin Islands and elsewhere in the region. Click on "message boards, localities" to find boards for Caribbean islands, including St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. (In fact, through the St. Thomas board, this reporter directed a Sint Maarten woman to someone in the Virgin Islands but born in St. Kitts who was able to put the woman in touch with her long-lost family on St. Kitts.)
One of the most useful sites for beginning genealogists is www.cyndilist.com. It is promoted as having links to more than 106,100 sites that can help users find their family history.
Once you get past the basic sites such as the Social Security Death Index, many sites charge for the information, so gather all the information you can from people still alive.
Marchena also suggested local residents join the V.I. Genealogical Society. It's a group of people looking for their roots, and members are glad to share information on how and where to do family history research, she said.
"Here in the Virgin Islands you might be working with your cousin and never know it," she said, referring to the interconnectedness of many Caribbean families.
After you're at this a little while, you'll need to organize your data. While you can keep track of it in a notebook, computer programs make the job easier. There are many for sale, but you can download a good one for free at www.legarcyfamilytree.com.
For information on the Genealogical Society, call Marchena at 777-8399 or Myron Jackson at 776-8605. To reach Whim Plantation Museum's Family History Center, call 772-0598.

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