March 4, 2006 – Compiling and publishing one's family tree could add a lot to V.I. history, according to Myron Jackson, president of the Virgin Islands Genealogical Society, who spoke at a meeting Friday evening. Jackson said that by tapping into the territory's rich tradition of oral history, memories, important dates, and the accomplishments of many notable figures could be preserved and used as a resource for future generations.
At the meeting, held at the Virgin Islands State Historic Preservation offices on St. Thomas, Jackson and other members of the society said they were well on their way with various research projects, and have been traveling to places like Africa, Bonaire and Curacao to add to their family trees.
"It's important that we do this now and put the information out there so that people can use it, study it and make it a part of their history," Jackson said.
Other society members said they would be holding family reunions, where they could videotape the stories told by older relatives.
"That's really great," Jackson encouraged. "That way you can keep the oral tradition alive, and you can also transcribe those stories and deposit them into places like archives and libraries, where future family members – or even community members – can see it."
Jackson said that the practice of recording family histories and keeping documents such as old newspapers, census reports and church records has been alive in the Virgin Islands for many decades and has helped connect many generations of relatives.
"Here in the territory we have some of the best records in the world – anything from the tracking of slave ships to and from the islands, to military and probate reports," Jackson said. "The Mormons who came to the V.I. over the years also made some of the first microfilms of events in the territory and recorded church events like births, deaths and marriages."
Christina Snow, a genealogist from Salt Lake City and guest speaker at the meeting, said that Mormon missionaries have traveled all over the world to film such events and have also been chronicling other records.
"For the Caribbean alone," Snow said, they have filmed events and have recorded documents in places like Aruba, Bermuda, Barbuda, the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands. And this includes everything from maps, minority statistics, naturalization and citizenship records, and property sales. All this information is a valuable resource and can really help people locate their family."
Many of the films are currently available at the Caribbean Genealogy Library at Havensight Mall on St. Thomas, Snow added. "The library can also order and borrow these films," she said.
Snow gave society members tips on compiling their family histories and recommended the use of a Web site created by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – www.familysearch.org.
She said, "This program will manage your research and print reports, make gedcom files, create a Web-page and more. You can also print pedigree sheets from the site and include the pictures you have of your family members."
At the meeting, Snow demonstrated how the site worked, and showed society members the information available for the Virgin Islands, which includes business and commerce records, census reports from 1688-1930, colonization documents, court reports and yearbooks from various schools. "Using documents like these, I was able to find a relative of mine who was the captain of a merchant ship, which sunk off the coast of St. John," she said. "It's all very interesting."
Snow said she was also able to track her husband's family using the site and found relatives like William Bradford, the first governor of the Plymouth Rock colony in Massachusetts.
Snow outlined some other methods for putting together a family tree, which include asking relatives for information, looking at job history records and researching emigration documents.
"Consult things like census reports, union membership documents, school related records, immunization certificates – all these things help," she said. "Also talk to everyone you can, record every date they give you – while some of the information might be different, you might see that they fit together later on."
Bank records are also important, she said. "During slavery there was something called the Freedman's Bank, which was established to prevent dishonest bankers from stealing whatever money the blacks made from working," she said. "And at the bank, if someone didn't have a picture of themselves, they would document a complete description of their client and sometimes record other information about their family."
Snow said that while creating her family tree, she looked through old family journals, photo albums and boxes of letters, which she said are also "incredible sources of information."
After Snow's presentation, society members continued to talk about their own families, which span throughout the entire Caribbean and regions of Europe, Africa and Central America. Some members even discovered an unknown relative at Friday's meeting and talked about old memories while making plans for a reunion.
"This is what we're here for," Jackson said with a smile on his face. "To help put families together. There's so much of our history that's untapped, and I think that we're helping, little by little, to discover it and put it out there for everyone to see."
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