The local researchers helped Nancy Diehl trace her family tree with the aid of this image. Contributed
With both the help of ever-emerging technology and obsessed local historians, Washington County-area researchers continue to link people with family histories and fascinating tales of the past.
Slave narratives, political connections and family secrets are the norm for the likes of Chad Bailey, Donna Cox Briggs and Betty Jane Hylton. All three constantly receive requests for help with histories around the area, and using their skill sets and passion for unlocking the past have had a great deal of positive results.
Rose Tate, 69, from Menifee, Calif., shared one tale of how contacting Hylton changed her life. Tate’s father was born in Bristol, Va., but was raised in Johnson City, where his family continued to live for some time. Tate would often come to the city to visit with family. She had heard from a relative about having slave ancestors in the city area, and felt compelled to do all she could to learn more about their history.
Finding an email address for Hylton, a founding member of the Watauga Association of Genealogists of Northeast Tennessee, became the tipping point for Tate. Because she was dealing with African-American slave history, U.S. Census records only included citizens who were deemed free.
“The first U.S. Census report that included former slaves is 1870,” Tate said. “With Betty Jane’s help, I have been able to trace my family back to the early 1800s.”
Tate said Hylton’s magic touch with these types of matters has been instrumental in unlocking her family’s history, but also started a fire in her to help others the way Hylton helped her, as she’s now hooked on genealogical research. Taking a page out of Hylton’s book, she said although she spends large quantities of time on helping others research their family trees, she doesn’t charge for her time, a way of sharing Hylton’s generosity.
Hylton said she looks at each case as a puzzle and endeavors to put the pieces together using a wide array of resources, including countless local and national websites. Many of those are free resources, including the Washington County TN Gen webpage she helps maintain at www.tngenweb.org/washington.
“A few years ago, a graduate student asked me why I kept doing genealogy,” Hylton said. “After some thought, I realized that it is the hunt. You answer one question and it generates more questions.”
The hunt is also what excites Briggs. She’s a founding member of the Cemetery Survey Team of Northeast Tennessee, has served on several genealogical society boards, and, like Hylton, is a volunteer with the Washington County Archives.
“Genealogy is not a hobby,” Briggs said. “It’s an obsession.”
She said the local area is rich with history, and that’s what makes it so unique and interesting to people like herself who are so obsessed with regional history. Washington County originally being a part of available records and local historical information make her job as much fun as can be, tracing stories back to the early settlers, whom she calls “history-makers.”
“There were many from our area who fought in the Revolutionary War and are buried here,” Briggs said. “Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett made history in this area, as did the Seviers and others.”
In her extensive research of the area, she listed some of her favorite local finds. Stories that stood out for her included an ancestor of hers who fought for both sides during the Civil War, fathered several children out of wedlock and was ultimately killed after being run over by a train because he was deaf and didn’t hear it coming. Also, there was a slave named Dorcas, who eventually earned her freedom and went on to also purchase her family’s freedom.
One of the up-and-comers of local genealogy would be the Jonesborough Genealogical Society’s first vice president, Bailey, who is involved in a handful of other local historical organizations within the county and region.
Bailey gets requests for help on a daily basis, which is a common occurrence across the country. He estimates there are millions of people in the U.S. trying to track down their family history. Like his colleagues, Bailey said www.ancestry.com is a great starter for those looking into their family’s past, but after that, it will take a utilization of resources such as local libraries, court records, etc., to gather more information.
“I don’t mind doing it while I can,” Bailey said of helping others with their extensive family histories. “But sometimes it gets to be a little too much, when people want their whole genealogy researched. Most of the time, I refer them to a paid researcher.”
It’s the not-so-known history makers that excite Bailey most about the area. He said history began here in about 1450 with the Cherokee, with some of the first European encounters taking place around 1541 on the Hermando De Soto expedition. He thinks those early stories are great, but would like to hear about others, too.
He said he doesn’t want to just tell the stories about John Sevier, but also of those not-so-recorded people.
Bailey helped one local woman with her family’s heritage while working with a single image.
Nancy Diehl, 73, had begun researching her family tree after being reached out to by a relative. She started on www.ancestry.com and then on social media sites before finding Bailey. All she had from her grandmother was a picture of her grandfather. On the photo was a list of those in the photo, and next to her grandfather, W.P. Diehl, it said “Mayor of Jonesborough,” something she’d never heard before.
Looking into it, she was unable to find anything justifying the claim, but questions why her grandmother’s inscription would be untrue. Bailey was able to propose to Diehl that perhaps her grandfather was the first mayor of Jonesborough.
“A lot of this sounds like hearsay, but it isn’t,” Diehl said. “What it is is really interesting.”
Bailey said many others are finding their own family histories interesting, and think it’s a worthwhile endeavor to track down their roots.
“Stories are meant to be shared,” Bailey said. “And that’s what history is made of.”