My story as a genealogist begins in 1978 when I dove into my own family history project head first and never looked back. I really must begin the story earlier and talk about one man without whom I never would have embarked on my journey. I’m talking about my paternal grandmother’s little brother, Giles Hopkins(#102) or Uncle Giles as most of us remember him. Everyone would agree that he was the acknowledged family historian and genealogist.
He was a devout bachelor all his life but he had 36 grandnieces and grandnephews, of which I was one. We were his children and he tracked each of our lives and kept up with it all. He would come to visit and bring us news of family near and far. He was like a 1960’s version of Facebook and we all looked forward to his visits.
After dinner, he would tell all sorts of stories about our family history or the history of the Cape and I would sit there and intently listen. This was not boring facts and dates like we learned in school. Uncle Giles made it come to life like an exciting movie or book. He added his own observations and wit that made it fascinating and enjoyable. His stories could be about pirates, or the house in Chatham; heroes in the War for Independence, or going to church in a horse and buggy as a kid; a tragic shipwreck, or an anecdote from my father’s childhood. I listened to each story with fascination as I took it all in.
The last time I saw him was the fall of 1973 when he came to our house in New Jersey for a visit. There were the usual stories but there seemed to be an underlying theme to his visit that day. He wanted us to write everything down. Anything we knew of a painting, an heirloom, etc. needed to be written down so future generations would know the story. It was a warning.
Giles Elberne Hopkins passed away 22 May 1974. I had lost my genealogical mentor before I had even begun.
It was a year or two later that I was looking at the books in my father’s study and I came across a series of five manuscripts. I opened one and it was written by Uncle Giles. In these manuscripts, written between 1951 and 1969, he covered our family history and genealogy. I had Uncle Giles back for an afternoon as I binge-read all five manuscripts back to back. As time moved on, I kept rereading those manuscripts and each time I had more questions I wanted to ask Uncle Giles. I wished I could have him back for just an hour to discuss these things. Why hadn’t I read these while he was still alive?
The first four all dealt with the family living in Massachusetts from the 17th century on, but the fifth one actually traced the family back before coming to America. It did so for one particular ancestor, Thomas Rogers(#322). He carefully gave a name and story for each generation going back. When he got to Catherine de Courtney, wife of Thomas Rogers of Ashington, he said this: “Catherine de Courtney is the 8th generation in direct line from King Edward I, England through the de Courtneys, de Bohuns etc. From Edward I there extends a direct line to King Alfred.”
This meant that I had royal blood and I was a direct descendant of Alfred the Great, King of England. This has since been proven to be wrong, but at the time this hooked my interest. It seemed that he knew the family names and the number of generations, so he must have known the names from Catherine to King Edward. Could this have possibly been the intended subject matter for a future manuscript? Of course there would be no future installments from Uncle Giles’ typewriter. If I was going to have these names, I would have to find them myself. I wanted to be able to produce a list of names from myself back to the Plantagenet Kings of England.
I made some initial progress working forward from King Edward. Much of this was available in most libraries. I had worked my way forward from Edward I to Elizabeth de Bohun, which I felt must be the line Giles Hopkins had mentioned. If there were indeed eight generations, I still had five more names that eluded me. This became an obsession. In the process I started to amass reams of information on the family history and genealogy. The torch had officially passed from Uncle Giles to me. In the coming years, I would become the family historian. People would be referred to me with questions on the family history and genealogy.
I remember very vividly the day I finally got those five names. It was a warm sunny spring afternoon in 1987. It was in a research library in Illinois, and I was not even working on genealogy. In the reference section I found a copy of Burke’s Peerage. It was old and dusty and I doubted if anyone had touched it in over twenty years. I was not even looking for it, but as I wandered through the stacks, it caught my eye. It had this look about it, like an ancient tome of wisdom. It was about six inches thick and weighed about 12 pounds. It just looked so big, that I had to stop and look at it. When I saw the title, I remember Uncle Giles expounding on some genealogical reference, “According to Burke’s…” I carried it over to table and opened it up.
The work is a who’s who of the dukes, barons, royalty, etc. of the United Kingdom. Each title is mentioned and, not only the current holder listed, the past holders are as well. All their relationships are reported on back into antiquity. Within twenty minutes, I had those five names. The de Bohuns, Earls of Hereford, and the de Courtneys, Earls of Devon were well documented in this book. It was not the first time that I felt that some part of Uncle Giles was guiding my search. He had definitely been aware of this work, since he had cited it in the past. It only took me nine years to rediscover this information. And still I wonder how much he knew that was not included in his manuscripts.
The following year, my genealogical world came crashing down. I was doing research in the library at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants in Plymouth Massachusetts. I came across the fact that Thomas Rogers’ descent from the de Courtneys was disproved in the 19th century. This meant that my royal ancestry had been disproved a hundred years before. More research into this confirmed it. Most references that mentioned this lineage, also mentioned the disproof of it. I copied down all of the gruesome details into my notebook to bring home to New Jersey.
When I got my notes home, I compared it to the genealogy I had gotten from Giles Hopkins. The disproved lines consisted of three names. When I compared them to the names from Giles, they were different. I had thought all the way home from Massachusetts, how strange it was that Uncle Giles had not known about this disproof. It was mentioned everywhere and the only reason that I did not find it earlier, was because I was not looking for information on these particular generations. Why should I? I had all I needed on them, or so I thought. The more I thought about it, the more inconceivable it was that he had not seen this disproof. Since he had given three different names, it seemed logical that this must be information that was new since the disproof. He did, after all, research these things in England. Now I wished more than ever that I had access to his notes, or could have him back for just a few minutes to ask him some questions.
In 1996 Uncle Giles’s genealogy of Thomas Rogers was relegated to the disproved file for good. The baptismal record of Thomas Rogers was found in Watsford, Northampton, England. He was the son of William and Eleanor Rogers. Eighteen years after starting my search for those five names, it appeared that I could either let the Rogers genealogy be, or take up the research anew from William.
I had no regrets in any of this. I now had notebooks filled with research of our family and our genealogy. I had become a genealogist and I did this back in the day of notebooks (as I found information, I had to write it down) and typewriters, road trips and libraries, traipsing through old cemeteries and actually reading 200 year old original records. I would carry at least three pairs of white cotton archival gloves in my research briefcase because it was not unusual for me to sit at a table looking through the original town records from the 18th century in the Town Hall in Orleans Massachusetts, or reviewing Revolutionary War muster rolls kept in a large, walk-in vault. I picked up a lot of skills along with all of the information.
When I started 40 years ago, if I wanted to look something up, I had to wait until I was heading up to Massachusetts and then arrange some time at a particular library to consult a work. If I needed to consult a reference like New England Marriages Prior to 1700 by Torrey, I’d need to go to Massachusetts. When I got to the library, maybe I could consult it or maybe I’d have to wait eight hours for my turn with it. Either way, I’d get home and suddenly realize that there was something else I needed to look up in it.
Then I became aware of certain genealogical research libraries where I could borrow books by mail. Once I discovered this, I could do a research task much quicker. If I needed to refer to let’s say the Doane Family and Descendants by Alfred A. Doane, I could mail in a request and maybe get the book within a month. Again, I’d mail the book back and no sooner than it left my house, I needed to look one more thing up in it.
The next evolution of me as a genealogist began when I started my own research library in my home. This way I could look up facts and check for information in mere minutes rather than months. I would find libraries that had copies of books like the Doane Family and Descendants by Alfred A. Doane for sale for a song. They were taking up room and seldom consulted in those institutions. Some companies began reprinting some of these works like Torrey’s New England Marriages Prior to 1700, which I quickly purchased.
One book that Uncle Giles relied heavily on was the History of Barnstable County, Massachusetts by Simeon L. Deyo, 1890. The book is huge and well over 1000 pages. It tells the history of each town on the Cape and relies heavily on oral testimony of people alive in the late 19th century. They would relate stories about their grandparents and a lot of family stories and genealogy is contained therein that is not available anywhere else, not even in the vital records. The copy I would always consult was the one in the Snow Library in Orleans, Massachusetts, the very copy that Uncle Giles used to use in his research. I felt close to Uncle Giles as I would turn through the very same pages that he had, decades before me. One day about 15 years ago, quite by accident, while looking stuff up on the internet, I came across a copy of Deyo on eBay. Long story short, I got it for less than $100 and when it arrived, it was in pristine, unused condition. This book was a very limited edition and each one was hand numbered. I turned to the front piece and noticed that I had received #12. I had my own copy of Deyo to consult.
I had become the “go to” person when it came to questions on our family history and genealogy. One common request I got was for copies of Uncle Giles’s manuscripts. I decided to combine them all into one volume with appropriate warnings at the disproved material. I included a couple of corrections and the hand written margin notes by my grandmother as footnotes. Giles took the names of the first three volumes from cartoons by Abner Dean of whom he was a fan. Each title page would parody one of Dean’s “Naked People” cartoons and contain the words, “With apologies to Abner Dean.” When I decided to make Uncle Giles’s work once again available, I too took the new title from one of Abner Dean’s cartoons, “This is All There Is.” I thought it an apt title that would do honor to the spirit of Uncle Giles’s originals, once again with apologies to Abner Dean.
I was doing a lot of active research at the time I edited those manuscripts. I had broken down several brick walls, a few of which had stumped genealogists since the late 1800’s. I also started making progress on my grandfather Downs’s line going back. There were many tough brick walls that I had to overcome there too. I toyed with the idea of writing a book sharing my research and I soon had a good number of chapters written. Then one day I realized I had to redo part because new research had uncovered new material. In 2004, I scrapped the book idea and decided a website might be more versatile when updating, could reach more people and possibly help me gather further information. I began the first version of DownsGenealogi.com and soon was putting up my most recent research for all to see.
It was great for writing articles and I wrote a bunch but it was lacking in a way to present the genealogical content like family trees or family group sheets. These had to be hand coded and it was a tedious and very time consuming process. While it looked like I had gotten a lot done (and I had) it wasn’t even really a drop in the bucket.
Things are different today. When someone wishes to begin a family history project, they join Ancestry.com and begin entering in themselves, their parents, grandparents, etc. Soon a leaf appears and they connect other researchers’ trees to their own. It’s all so simple now and you never leave your computer; you never wait in line for a reference book; you never drive eight hours for an answer. You can even download a Kindle edition of the History of Barnstable County by Deyo for $1.99 from Amazon. I love Ancestry.com because now I can check a US Census record without having to know the volume and roll numbers when filling out the request for the microfilm. It is a different world and I have changed with the times but I also feel sorry for the budding genealogist today. They will never feel the connection with the past as you handle a 200 year old document, possibly touched by your ancestor. They may never spend a day in an old cemetery reading graves, another strong link to the past. It can be so sterile on the computer and you miss so much of the experience. I’m glad I learned genealogy when I did.
Today I embark on a new generation of DownsGenealogy.com. Like everything else, there are many technological advances. Instead of me hand coding every family group sheet or chart, there is now software that can create these pages on the fly from an SQL database. All I need to do is upload the software and the database and visitors can have access to all of the genealogical research. Combining it with social media can only mean more people can make use of it and possibly contribute to the information gathered there.
It was 45 years ago that Uncle Giles warned me that I needed to write everything down and record it for posterity. I have heeded that warning. Now that I have done so, I can hear Uncle Giles nudging me from beyond the grave, “Now that you’ve written it down, DO SOMETHING WITH IT!” I think he would approve of DownsGenealogy.com.
When I sat down to write this “About Me” section, I thought it would take ten minutes and be about a page long. I now look back at what I’ve written and I’m shocked there is so much. This exercise has helped me put my own search into perspective and reminded me of the many reasons why I do this. Thank you for bearing with me through this.
I’ve come a long way since those early days of a single table and chair in the Orleans Town Clerk’s Office. If I want to search for a death record in Harwich from 1895, I don’t have to plan a trip there next spring when I can take some time off of work. I can now go to my computer and find that record in less than ten minutes and find that it was really recorded in Chatham, not Harwich. I’m happy to combine my “old school” skills with the wonderful advantages of the “Information Age.” I hope Uncle Giles would approve of the genealogist and historian I have become. He has stood by me in spirit, in silent support, every inch of the way. I often feel he has had a hand in guiding me to find certain things by chance.
I have mentioned several times that I was sure Giles knew more. I had wished that I had access to his research notes or knew who had them if they still existed. Early on in my journey, my father gave me a folder containing many papers concerning Uncle Giles. This folder had been given to him by Marshall Eldredge, another of the 36 grandnieces and grandnephews. Among the newspaper clippings, pamphlets, letters, etc. there was a piece that I had ignored all this time. It is an original typewriter written essay done on that thin, onionskin like, typing paper that used to be popular. It is faded, hard to read and there are gross spelling errors. It lacked the Giles Hopkins wit that was so prominent in his writings. I always took it as a preliminary version of his final work on the Rogers and the Bassetts because it started out similarly to that work. For a reason that now escapes me, about 15 years ago, I looked at the last page of this essay. It was written by Uncle Giles a few weeks before his death. Here was the piece that spelled out more about those royal links including a descent from Cerdic, the first king of the West Saxons who landed in Britain in AD 495. I would not have, nor even dream of, this information for many years after starting this project. It seems ironic that is was in my possession the whole time.
He usually included in each manuscript his name as Giles E. Hopkins along with the date and city of composition. This essay was signed G.E. Hopkins and dated only. He seemed to have struggled to write this. There were portions crossed out with “X’s” on his typewriter where he had made mistakes. This was not his style and he was a much better typist than this. This was almost like a deathbed confession of more of what he knew. I could not help thinking of his final visit and the warning to write things down before it was too late. I also think of the passing of the torch and the irony that the original, and probably only, copy of this has been in my possession. These were probably the last gleanings of family history from the great master’s typewriter before it was silenced forever.
Today I’m a proud member of:
- The Association of Professional Genealogists (APG)
- The National Genealogical Society (NGS)
- The New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS)
- The Mayflower Society (GSMD)
- The Cape Cod Genealogical Society
- The Orleans Historical Society
I’m also the Administrator of the DOWNS Message Board at Ancestry.com.
Genealogy begins as an interest,
Becomes a hobby;
Continues as an avocation,
Takes over as an obsession,
And in its last stages,
Is an incurable disease