More and more, people are interested in their roots – where they came from and what their ancestors’ lives were like. As with anything else, understanding our past can help us better understand who we are and how we got where we are now.
As seniors, we owe it to our children and grandchildren to leave them with as much information as possible about ourselves and our history. It’s a personal gift that cannot be measured in money. I learned about this first hand about 30 years ago when I became interested in my own history.
Sharing Really is Caring
I asked my father and mother about their history, but, surprisingly, neither seemed to know much beyond their own parents. However, with the small bit of information they provided, I was fortunate to make a few serendipitous connections, which led me to a plethora of information about my heritage.
If you are the child or grandchild of a living senior, don’t wait to begin the conversation. Even if you aren’t personally interested in delving into your ancestry, you might learn some exciting things about what makes you, you. And who knows, you might be bitten with the bug to dig further into your past.
And if you are already a senior, take it upon yourself to offer to share your family knowledge. It’s also good to share some insights into what you encountered growing up.
“My kids aren’t interested in that,” you say? Try it anyway. I really had no interest in my family history until I was almost 40, although I was interested in learning about my parents’ own experiences.
If they don’t show interest right now, try again in a few months. Once the interest is kindled, they won’t want you to stop. And passing on our historical legacy is never bad, even if there are some bad incidents or people in that legacy1.
Another good way to leave a legacy is to write your autobiography. It doesn’t have to be in best-seller form. Just get your experiences and thoughts on paper (or in a computer file). You may very well find that in itself is an eye-opening experience for you.
I started my autobiography about eight years ago. I’ve varied between writing fervently for a few days to not touching the manuscript for months. But I’ve found it eye-opening to read back over my own history as I remembered it. Often, reading what I wrote a few years ago about an event in my past triggers new memories of the event, or perhaps changes to my recollection.
In the Internet age, researching one’s family history is relatively easy. This is a marked change from the task just a few years ago. The primary aid available today is Ancestry.com. This website contains information on hundreds of thousands of people from the past. It also shows their linkages to other people. The site is not cheap – about $180 per year for a subscription to United States databases. But there are also monthly plans and even a month or two of diligent search on Ancestry can yield a treasure trove of information about our past.
While I personally believe that Ancestry.com provides the best information, there are a number of other genealogy research sites on the web. Some of these include:
Another valuable resource is Newspapers.com. This site has digitized copies of hundreds of newspapers from across the world. Particularly if your heritage is centered in a larger city, this site may allow you to review interesting stories about family members in the past, One such story that I ran across, nearly by accident, involved my older brother. A 1941 notation in my childhood local newspaper read, “Little Roger Worley, age 6, was kept home from school today because of the flu.” It must have been what they call in the newspaper business “a slow news day.”
Tracking Your Family History
While you can create family groupings and relationships on some online sites, I prefer a local app to do this. The information is readily available without internet access but can be synced with other devices later when the internet is available.
One factor to look for when choosing a local app is integration with online services. It will help your record-keeping immensely if you can pull information from a service like Ancestry.com directly.
There are two major apps in this category: RootsMagic and Family Tree Maker. Both readily connect to Ancestry.com. I’ve used both, but I prefer RootsMagic for its simpler interface. RootsMagic is the most popular software used by professional genealogists.
Family Tree Maker is also popular, in large part because Ancestry once owned it. MacKiev now owns the product, and they released a comprehensive new edition in 2019. Family Tree Maker is a good product but is considered overly expensive – about twice the cost of RootsMagic.
LDS Family History Center
The doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS or Mormons) puts heavy emphasis on one’s genealogical history. Therefore, the LDS Church has established an extensive archive and research library in Salt Lake City, Utah, for church members to conduct research.
However – and this is monumental for anyone’s research – they do not limit access to this information to church members. Anyone can use the resources of the Family History Library for free.
But what if you can’t travel to Salt Lake City to visit the Library? The LDS Church maintains satellite Family History Centers in 5100 locations in 145 countries. These centers are electronically linked to the Family History Library. What’s more, if you need access to a printed document not available in the FHC, you can order a copy from the Library for the cost of copying and mailing. You can even borrow books from the centers – shipped from the Library if they don’t have their own copy – again, just for the actual cost of shipping.
And the people who staff Family History Centers are very knowledgable and more than willing to help.
I’ve done considerable research on my family, both in Centers and the Library itself, and have not once been disappointed with the friendly service.
My Own Family History in Brief
As mentioned, I was fortunate to stumble across a significant amount of information about my family history – particularly on my father’s side. I traced my mother’s side of my family to the Revolutionary War era but haven’t been able to find information older than that.
However, my father’s side is a different story. I traced that side of my family reliably to about 1503. Further information I have received links back to about 1050, although some of those ties are questionable.
Many people would like to trace their heritage to the Mayflower. This ship’s passengers established a colony in Massachusetts in 1620, which is often considered the beginnings of America – even though English settlers had established a colony at Jamestown thirteen years earlier.
While I have never considered myself part of that group, my history tracking revealed something almost as significant.
My 8th great-grandfather, Henry Worley, was born in Sussex, England, in 1642. As a young man, he moved to London, where he married and fathered two sons and a daughter. However, the daughter, Elizabeth, lived only one month. Henry took ill and died late in 1674. He had become a member of the Religious Society of Friends – the Quakers – in London. In part, this is why I have such good information about my family history. The Quakers were meticulous record-keepers through their monthly meetings.
After Henry’s death, his widow, Ann Stone Worley, was courted by another Quaker, a last maker named Caleb Pusey. Caleb and Ann married on March 7, 1681, at the Devonshire Meeting House in London.
A leader of the Friends, William Penn, was given a land grant of 45,000 square miles in America by King Charles II to settle a debt owed to Penn’s father. The grant was slightly larger than the present state of Pennsylvania. Penn had previously established a small colony on part of the land, now Monmouth County, New Jersey, in 1676. After returning to England, where the Quakers’ persecution continued, Penn gathered many of his followers and set sail for the new world aboard the ship Welcome in August 1682. Among the followers on that voyage were Caleb and Ann Pusey and Ann’s sons, Henry and Francis Worley. Francis was my 7th great-grandfather.
There was a greater need for grain for the new colony than for new shoes. So Penn designated Pusey as the colony’s grain miller. Pusey established a mill on the banks of what he called Chester Creek. The following year, he built a house of river rock adjacent to the mill. That house, now a museum, still stands in southeast Philadelphia.
One of my ancestors fought for independence in the Revolutionary War as a member of the Pennsylvania Militia. Another ancestor – my great-grandfather – was an active participant in the U.S. Civil War.
Zenas Cornelius Worley2 was born near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1841. By the time he reached maturity, the family had relocated to Putnam County, Illinois.
When war came, ZC, like many others his age, rushed to join the “war to preserve the Union.” He was mustered into the 86th Illinois Volunteer Infantry in August 1862.
On a side note, shortly after their muster, the 86th was transported on train cars to southern Indiana. They crossed the Ohio River to Louisville and were billeted in a place “Camp Louisville.” The location of Camp Louisville is now the site of the Belknap Campus of the University of Louisville, where I taught for six years.
The first battle for the 86th was at Perryville, Kentucky, against the Confederate forces of General Braxton Bragg. The battle was essentially a stalemate but led to the withdrawal of the Confederate presence in Kentucky.
Over the next three years, ZC and his brethren fought the Confederates in several battles, including Chickamauga and Resaca. The 86th also participated in the Siege of Atlanta and the March to the Sea as a unit of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army.
ZC survived the war with only a few medical issues typical of a soldier’s harsh living conditions. He settled in Nebraska and became a farmer. He died in 1908. Unfortunately, his older brother, Brice – a member of the 82nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry – was killed at Chickamauga.
Have you passed on family stories and historical information to your children and grandchildren? If so, what did you think of the experience?
Tell us in the comments below.
- My first cousin – eight times removed – was a true life pirate and a contemporary of Blackbeard. More on that story in a future article.
- When he was born, there was a wave of naming children – boys especially – with Greek or Greek-sounding names. Zenas hated his name and went by “ZC” most of his life.