Thursday, September 2, 2010

Treasure Chest Thursday: Genealogy in the 1940s

F.R. Conway letter
My great-aunt Selma Sawyer was the family custodian of records and lived across the Nolichucky River from her great-grandfather Conway's land. Visitors poking around Cocke or Greene County asking about the Conways were often referred to her for information and housing.  Being gregarious and hospitable she took them in for a night, or at the very least served up a country meal. She was not a researcher, but was eager to see what other's had learned. I used to accuse her of chasing Charlemagne, but she saw no shame in collecting illustrious relations, and had the family crests on her wall to prove it. There are more than a dozen letters from genealogists she met (never leaving her porch, I suspect) in her papers. They attest to her warmth - and perhaps their hope that she might lead them to whatever Holy Grail they were seeking.

Helen Cooper letter
The letters suggest some competition for artifacts (imagine!), express frustration at other researchers' stinginess with information, and include a few not so subtle barbs. But they also demonstrate great generosity, warmth and a passion for the hunt that I recognize.

Helen Cooper Map
Helen Cooper's letter (right) sparked my interest in history when I was a girl. I was no more than 11 when my aunt showed it to me and I was fascinated. It amazed me that someone had an old map, that others wanted to see it and that someone took the time to copy it - twice!

Ethel Jackson letter

I admit to being amused by Ethel Jackson's (right)  letter. More than half the letters are from her. They are chatty and casual. I was ready to lump her with Aunt Selma as nothing more than a crown collector until I realized how many hours she spent digging through court house basements and various attics. Some of the documents that I "found" to support the Conway information I had been given actually were found by Mrs. Jackson in the 1930s and 1940s. Whatever the tone of her letters, she dug.

I'm grateful I'm researching today, and not then. But there's charm in the idea of roaming the countryside, knocking on doors and being invited into the family. I have to wonder though, some of those doors up in the mountains might have had moonshiners behind them.  Knocking on those could have proved fatal.

Letters to Selma Sawyer from: F.R. Conway, dtd 28 May 1940; Helen Cooper, dtd 4 Oct 1945; and Ethel Jackson, undated. Digital images. Privately held by Nolichucky Roots [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE], 1997. 

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