Sunday, February 25, 2007

Letter to your Ancestor

Letter to your Ancestor
Or "Rednecks, Unanswered questions and Wishful thinking"
by Uncle Hiram

The other night I was sitting in front of my computer staring at my genealogy program and muttering under by breath. I just want five minutes with this guy. How can a person sail from England to North Carolina, live 50 years in our country and leave so many unanswered questions? As I sat there staring at the screen in frustration, I got to thinking, "What I would like to do is write this guy a letter." I realize that he wouldn't ever get the letter or answer the letter but I was hoping it would help me to crystallize what I knew and what I needed to know.

Here is the Letter:

Dear Great Grandfather Howcott:

First let me introduce myself, I am your 11th generation grandson born in the state of Texas in the United States of America. About 30 years after your death the 13 colonies fought a revolution against Great Britain and won their independence. I realize you were a loyal Englishman but your descendants helped to build this great country I now live in, I hope we have in some ways lived up to your expectations. I am currently involved in trying to research our family in order to better understand them and to pass on the family history to my descendants. I hope you don't mind, but I would like to ask you a few questions to help me get a better grip on you and your motivations.

I know you were born in 1688 near Birmingham, England. I know you sold some land in Bertie County North Carolina in 1715. I know you were married and had several children. What I would like to know is:

How did you get to America and in what year did you and your brother sail over here. Also, I am just curious who's ideal was it yours or John's?

What was your wife's name? Did you marry more than once or was the multiple wife's names just a matter of the clerk putting down a nickname instead of the given name?

Why did you leave a safe comfortable life in England for the wilds of North Carolina?

What were the names of all your children?

Why North Carolina instead of one of the more prosperous colonies up north? Not that I am complaining, I much prefer having southern roots.

Why did you leave one of your sons out of your will? Was he still living or had he already passed?

How did you go from being the son of a comfortable but not wealthy Tavern owner to a large land owner in America in only 30 years?

Why didn't you leave better records?

Seriously, don't we all wish we could just sit down with one of our lost ancestors for five minutes to ask him (or her) some key questions? Next week let's discuss letters to distant cousins you don't know.

I am proud to announce the winners of the August Site of the Month Awards:

County Site of the Month
Providence, R.I. USGenWeb Page(
Home Page of the Month
Harned / The Harneds of North America(
Misc. Site of the Month
Helm's Genealogy Toolbox - Providing the Tools to Research Your Family Online(
- Adios and Keep Smiling!

2007 Update:

Again I need to point out this column was written many years ago. Since that time I have found answers to some of the questions I wanted to ask my longdead ancestor. I do want to point out the majority of the answers found since I wrote this column were not found by me but instead by a distant cousin doing research in England. The URL for my English "Cousins" website is

Letters to Distant Cousins

Letters to Distant Cousins
Or "Rednecks, Snail Mail Research and Opening the Door"
by Uncle Hiram

Last week discussed writing a letter to your ancestor, this week lets tackle an even harder subject. Writing that letter to the cousin you aint met yet. The first thing you need to do is go out in the front yard and ask the big tree about your family roots. OK, what did the tree tell you? Right, not a blessed thing. The reason for this exercise in futility is to get you ready for the lack of response you will get from 80 percent of the letters you send out. BUT, Instead of dwelling on that depressing fact lets look forward to the 20 percent that do respond.
Enough beating around the bush, lets get down to the basics. You need to decide how much info you are going to include in the letter and what info you are going to ask for. In your first paragraph you need to introduce yourself and tell a little about your family.

For example, here is the first paragraph of my "Couzzie" letter:

Dear Kinsman:

Hi, my name is Bill Hocutt, son of George Willis Hocutt, son of William Jackson Hocutt, son of Agrippa Jackson Hocutt, son of George Hocutt, son of Edward Hocutt, son of Edward Hocut, son of Edward HOWCOTT of Chowan County, North Carolina. I am attempting to trace OUR family roots. I say "our" family roots because every person in the United States with the surname Hocutt descended from either John or Edward HOWCOTT, a pair of brothers who emigrated to North Carolina in the early 1700's.

You will notice I gave my direct line and explained why I had chosen to write to them.
In the second paragraph explain to them that you are not selling anything, that you are just trying to gather info on the family. Assure them that you are not going to use this info for any purpose other than family research. (i.e., you wont sell it to Columbia House Records, Amway or the IRS). After you have done this, explain what type of information you are looking for. Tell them you would be more than happy to share info with them.

Now you need to include with this letter a family sheet for yourself, a family sheet for the oldest person in your family line and a blank family sheet for them to fill out.

You can dramatically increase the odds on people responding by including a stamped self addressed envelope. Hopefully you will get at least the 20 percent response and your family tree will sprout some new twigs.

- Adios and Keep Smiling!

Letter to Your Descendants

Letter to Your Descendants
Or "Rednecks, Remembered Family and Your Heritage"

Two weeks ago we all got together and talked about writing to an ancestor. Last week we chewed over the prospect of writing to that distant cousin. This weeks lets kick off our boots, nuke some popcorn and try to leave a note for our descendants.

Before you start putting down those brilliant ideas on paper, let's talk about what you want them to know about you versus what they will need to know about you. You want to tell them a little about yourself beyond the basic information. For example:


My name is Uncle Hiram, I was born in the Great State of Texas during the Eisenhower presidency. I grew up in that town that Tom Landry made famous. I Went to various schools some good, some bad. I did a year of college before joining Uncle Sam's Traveling All Star Team (USAF). After 8 years, 6 assignments and 3 countries culminating in a tour in that big 5 sided nut house, I decided the military wasn't as interested in my happiness as I was. I then had the great fortune to meet an East Texas Blonde that was willing to put up with my unique personality.

Of course, since your note isn't going out on the Internet, I would suggest you put in actual dates and names instead of just vague references like in the example.

Next you might want to tell them anything about your life that was interesting or unusual. It may surprise you, but I don't mean tell them about your job unless that is the only thing that defines your life. For example:

If Yall still study American history up there in the future Yall might have heard that we had an American President killed in Dallas in 1963. President Kennedy died in Parkland hospital. I mention this only because I was in Parkland that day having surgery, as a result of being burned when I was 2.

The third thing I would suggest putting in is an explanation of why you started doing genealogy. What you had hoped to find out about your heritage and the strangest thing you ever found or happened while doing research.

The final thing to include is a complete copy of your research.

- Adios and Keep Smiling!


Or "Rednecks, High School Yearbooks and Great Photo's"

I don't know about Yall but one of the things I love to add to my family research material is photo's of the various folks in my tree. The problem with that is most of my family tends to run away when someone breaks out a camera. I sware sometimes I think they must all be afraid that they will show up on "America's Most Wanted." Now I tried making little drawings of all of them but skill level as an artist has not progressed past the kindergarten level.

For the last few years I have made myself a total pest to most of my families by snapping photo's of them while they weren't paying attention. This has resulted in some "interesting" photos as well has two broken cameras, three black eyes and a broken nose. I never said my family was entirely stable.

About a year ago I was in a used book store (one of my favorite hangouts) and ran across a yearbook from Athens Texas High School from 1967. I was joking with my blonde that I couldn't for the life of me think of why anyone would want an old yearbook from a school they didn't attend, when I came across a photo of James Hocutt. After I convinced the store manager that I had not had some kinda spastic attack in the middle of his store, I purchased the book. I scanned the photo into my Database and began my search for more old Yearbooks.
Since then I have purchased Yearbooks from seven high schools all over Texas and two colleges. All bought from used book stores for less than $15 each. I have managed to add photos of 16 cousins using this method.

Now I know that Some college's started doing Photo yearbooks during the 1880s and that most High Schools had them by the 1930s. You will not be able to add new branches by doing this but you will be able invaluable photos to your family tree.

If you are near a university that one of your family members attended you can contact their Library and see if they have any of the yearbooks from the years you are looking for. That way you can determine if your ancestor is in it and with the high quality copy machines that are out there. You can make a copy that is at least acceptable to add to your files. You might also wanna check out the local libraries and used book stores.

-Adios and Keep Smiling!

Beating the Bushes

Beating the Bushes
Or "Rednecks, Phone Books and High School Football Programs"

I wanna tell Yall about one of the things I do that drives my sweet blonde right up the wall. Everytime we go on vacation or on a trip, the first thing I do when we check into the motel, even before I steal the ashtrays, is grab the phone book. I carefully go through it, looking for surnames. I have always considered this creative research, she says I am compulsive.

For years I had no real good answer for her because I had never come across the surnames I was looking for. I would search the phone books and she would just sit over there and giggle. I would go through the football programs everytime our little town had a road game and she would roll her eyes and giggle. I am not sure, but I think she put up with my little compulsion because she figured it was harmless and it only took me a minute or two.

Last summer, on our extended vacation to Florida, like always, I would go through the phone books in every small town we stopped in. In a small town near Mobile, Alabama, we stopped for dinner at one of those old-fashioned Greasy Spoons. You know the ones I mean, the cook is always named Cookie and the waitress is named Flora Bell or Norma Jean.

As we were waiting for our Chicken Fried Steaks, and after sneaking over to the phone booth "borrowing" the phone book, I started my routine. Let's see No Traywicks (Sigh), No Lunsfords (Sigh), No Dodsons (Sigh), and of course No Hocutts, Wait, there it is, Five separate listings for Hocutts. My blonde was so shocked she didn't even object when I pulled out the cell phone and started dialing. I ended up with six pages of notes on a branch of the family that had escaped my widely thrown net.

The moral of this, never overlook any opportunity to do genealogy. Check those phone books, look at those High School Football programs and look at any source that lists lots of names. Sometimes you get lucky.

-Adios and Keep Smiling!

Church Records

Church Records
Or "Rednecks, Missed Opportunities and Tons of Records"

One of the least used of the many avenues of research, available to the genealogist, is church records. This is probably because most folks don't realize what a treasure trove of info is hidden in these records.

Let's take a few moments and examine some of the documents and information that you might find in the church. There are six major types of records available. I would like to briefly touch on each of these six types of documents.

Baptism and Christening Records - You can use these to find the names of a person's parents, date of birth and you can document the person's religious affiliation.

Marriage Records - Aside from the obvious information, you want to pay attention to the witnesses which are frequently relatives.

Death Records - Again, aside from the obvious information you can mine, these records for additional vital info. For Example: the cemetery the person was buried in, spouses name, list of pallbearers (Frequently family) and possibly a list of survivors.

Confirmation records - You can get the person's full name from this document, date of birth, parents name and more.

Membership records - You can use these records to track your family's participation. Look for family members dropping off and joining. This could indicate that they moved or died, when new family members are added it could give a clue on a marriage or birth.

Miscellaneous records -- such as committee's, deacons and religious classes can be used to track your family.

In closing I want to remind you that the Churches don't have to share these records with us, so be polite and make sure you thank the church secretary.

I want to thank Taz for the research that went into this column. For more reading on this subject I wanna suggest the following URLs:
-Adios and Keep Smiling!

A Genealogist's Christmas List

A Genealogist's Christmas List
Or "Rednecks, Gifts and Desires"

It's that time of year again, their is a chill in the air. People are smiling and humming Christmas songs and VISA cards are melting all over the place. Folks are sitting at tables all across America and making out Christmas lists. If you will allow me to be a bit on the presumptious side, let me make some suggestions for that genealogist on your list.

First, let's discuss the high dollar gifts that any genealogist would love to get:
A new computer - a faster computer with more ram and a bigger hard drive would bring a smile to the grumpiest genealogist. More space turns into more precious family documents and photos stored. 2) A cable modem or DSL connection, prepaid for a year - just sit back and imagine the look of pure joy on your genealogists face, as those gedcoms and BLM documents download in seconds, instead of hours. Who knows, they might even end up with enough spare time to organize their desk and get those census forms off the Kitchen table.

A Genealogical trip - if you have some "serious" money to spare. Set up a trip for your genealogist to the "Promised Land". It don't matter if it's back to Fayette County, Alabama, to run the court houses and talk to distant cousins or back to the old country, your genealogist would flip. If you plan it right and get lucky, they won't even notice that you wandered off to play golf or visit the casinos.

A CD Burner - a tool that is quickly becoming a "must have" for the amatuer genealogist. The ability to save scanned images of documents and photos to a CD, rather than eating up hard drive space, makes this one of the best gifts you can give.

A Digital Camera - we both know, that genealogist of yours is gonna spend a minor fortune on photos taken of cemeteries and distant relatives. This gift would not only allow them to transfer their photos to genealogical databases a lot easier, it may, in the long run, save you money.

A Scanner - Genealogists crave photos and documents, the same way that rednecks crave beer and beef jerky. The ability to scan a copy of those precious items, would delight your genealogist to no end.

Now a few gift suggestions for those of us with slimmer wallets.
A subscription to or one of the other online genealogy services. There isn't a computer genealogist alive that wouldn't like to browse through one of these paid databases.
The latest version of their favorite genealogical software. I dont know a single genealogist, that wouldn't love to upgrade their program.

A Genealogical book - Now before you say you dont know which one they would want, let me tell you that we all love the latest source books or how to books. I would also like to suggest "Uncle Hiram's Adventures in Genealogy Vol. 2: Running with the Redneck", if nothing else it's good for a laugh. (

Now a few FREE gift ideals
Give your genealogist a little understanding. This hobby is more addictive than Monday night football. Be Patient with your genealogist. We aren't really ignoring yall.
I hope I have given you a few ideals to work with. (Feel free to print this column and casually leave it where your spouse will find it.) (GRIN)
-Adios and Keep Smiling!

NOTE FROM 2007: This column was written 7 years ago. I would suggest a DVD Burner now instead of a CD Burner. I would also suggest one of the "BOOK" hard drives I saw last week in Best Buy. They are external hard drives -- the largest one I saw was a Terrabyte. Amazing how much progress computers have made in the last 10 years. Both of my books are no longer in print but I do still have a few copys laying about the house if you would like to buy one.