My great-grandfather, George Lafayette Hill 1843-1922
Growing up, everyone in my family knew our family history on our mother's side. We all had copies of the family tree showing the ancestry of her father. Many lines went back to our American immigrant ancestors, and a few went beyond that, including one line back to John Knox and his second wife Lady Margaret Stewart. Through her we are descended from Scottish and early English royalty, even Norman (as in William the Conqueror).
However, on my father's side I knew next to nothing. I knew my grandmother, and I knew of my grandfather, although he died four years before I was born. I can remember an old woman named Bessie that I met once or twice at my grandmother's house in Athens, Georgia, but I had no idea until years after she died that she was my great-grandmother. Everyone called her Bessie; I never heard anyone call her "grandma" or anything like that.
When I first became interested in genealogy I started off by entering all the information I had on my mother's side into some family tree software; I can't even remember what I started with. I learned how to do research over the internet, and even a little about "boots on the ground" research, visiting court houses, finding cemeteries, talking to older relatives.
I was fortunate that my mother's ancestors were themselves very interested in their family history. Her paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were both rather prominent ministers in the southern Presbyterian Church, and the Presbyterian Historical Society in Montreat, North Carolina had collections of their papers, both church related and personal.
Among my great-great-grandfather's papers I found letters he had written to cousins in New York and Connecticut about their family history. In my great-grandfather's papers I found neat little stacks of call slips showing he did a lot of family research at the Library of Congress, presumably when he lived near Richmond, Virginia.
Their interest and research, plus that of my aunt Ashley Mack, provided much of the information that I and all my Mack cousins grew up with.
As I said, I knew next to nothing about my father's family history. I heard things, that they were Scots-Irish, they were mostly farmers, that my great-grandfather was a drummer boy in the Civil War, but no details. When I decided to begin researching my father's ancestry, I turned to my Aunt Linda, Dad's youngest sibling. I called her a few times asking about family stuff, and she kept telling me that my older sister had everything.
Well, my sister and I didn't talk much, and she was always too busy to go digging for whatever she had from our grandmother, so I decided to go visit Aunt Linda and pick her brain for whatever she could remember, and use that as a starting point.
Well, I found out Aunt Linda had been holding out on me. Once I was at her house and talking in person with her, she told me she had some papers in her office. She went to get them and came back with a stack of papers at least six inches tall, if not more. One of our cousins, Don Chandler (my grandmother's maiden name was Chandler), had contacted Linda a few years earlier and supplied her tons of information on our Chandler ancestry.
What was most interesting to me was that Linda had some notes written by my grandmother two or three weeks before my grandfather died, notes about his family. The information was disjointed and sometimes contradictory, but it was still like finding treasure as far as I was concerned.
Another time I got Aunt Linda to show me some of the cemeteries where our family members were buried, little family cemeteries out in the country, like the Chandler Cemetery and the Crawford-Williams Family Cemetery, and an old church cemetery with no church (the church moved a few miles away), Old Fork Cemetery.
All of this information helped me "jump start" my family history search. Among other interesting facts, I learned that both of Dad's grandmothers were Williamses (the aforementioned Bessie, plus Dad's paternal grandmother Minty), although the two Williams families do not appear to be related. I learned that the Hills had lived and farmed not far from Athens since the early 1800s. I learned about a first cousin I had never met, the son of one of Dad's older brothers, only eight years younger than my father.
That cousin, Alan Hill, is married to Judy who is very interested in genealogy. She had visited with Linda a few years earlier and had done some local research on the Hill line, from which I benefited.
All of this led me to the various Hill families in Franklin, Banks, Jackson, and Madison counties that I have mentioned elsewhere, trying to find a connection and with any luck extend my Hill family tree back beyond my great-grandfather.
I've had phone conversations with various distant cousins I've found, and managed to meet a few. I've also read the obituaries of some who I never made the time to visit, which I deeply regret.
Which brings me back to exactly how I got started, and what I think is an important point to make for anyone interested in their family history. My real start came when I visited and talked with my aunt. While one can learn a great deal from historical records, the most interesting information always seems to come from face-to-face conversations with older relatives.
So don't miss out like I have in too many cases. Go see those aunts, uncles, distant cousins, especially if they are elderly. Go find your treasure.