This year, as in years past, we had a five generation vacation on Hilton Head island. I’ve been taking this trip to the Low Country with my family for the past decade, the generations growing over the years.
My husband and I tend to drive because flights are expensive and we have a lot of accoutrements like boogie boards, shovels for the sand and this year, lacrosse sticks since my daughter is learning this game invented by Native Americans. On the way down, we’re too excited for our vacation to get started to make any stops, but on the way back, we like to break up the sadness of our vacation’s end and the monotony of driving home by a post vaca field trip. In the past, we’ve stopped at the Smithsonian, the Lincoln Monument and the National Archives. But this year, we stopped at the Maryland Historical Society to do a little family digging.
My fifth cousin alerted me to the fact that extracts from a Stuart family bible, my paternal ancestors, were in the historical society’s library. So, after driving eight hours up route 95, we stopped in Baltimore. I sifted through ancient wooden boxes with peeling parchment inside trying to find the family Bible extracts while my husband and daughters walked through the museum. In one of the exhibits, they ran into John Wilkes Booth, whose family was from Maryland and a man who had fought in the War of 1812. The veteran said something like 20 percent of the combatants of that war were Africans. Never learned that (or about the War of 1812 for that matter) in my history class. The 200 year-olds wandering around the exhibits were actually the Maryland Historical Society Players who act out and interpret parts of Maryland History. My own family’s history seemed to be coming to life in the reading room, albeit not so dramatically, rather with serendipity.
As I leafed through the papers of Sarah Elizabeth Stuart, I discovered that this woman was a genealogist. She didn’t seem much interested in my family’s history – after about a half hour of searching, I realized the family Bible extracts were submitted by someone else – a female family member with a different surname. But Sarah’s meticulous records of other family’s lineages were arranged in neat piles and stuffed into thin brown envelopes with typed written requests for her services attached. One such request was from an officer of the Daughters of the American Revolution who had used her services to track people’s Revolutionary War ancestors several times before. I wonder if Sarah and I are actually related and what the going rate was for a genealogist back then.