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Genealogy: Breaking down ‘brick walls’ in search of ancestors

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Second in a series

Like most grandmothers, Claire Fleming has photos and stories that she’s ready to share. But the Tradition Club resident is just as likely to share stories about her grandparents as her grandchildren. And if you ask the grandkids, they are likely to tell you about their headstone hunting trips with their grandmother.

Genealogy is a field that seems tailor-made for Fleming. She was a systems engineer for Bell Labs, which gave her the computer and analytical skills. She grew up in a Queens, New York, in a building where the three apartments were occupied by three generations of her family.

But there were a couple of drawbacks. For one, she never liked history in school, with its dry accumulation of facts. Working with computers all day didn’t incline Fleming toward using them in her spare time.

All that changed when her first grandchild was born. She went to New Jersey for his baptism and was part of a five-generation photo. All the grandparents in the photo had a grandparent living.

“I came home and started looking for John,” she said. John is not an ancestor. He is John Eveleigh, an avid genealogist who started a special interest group as part of the Waccamaw Neck Computer Club. He has taught hundreds of people how to search for their ancestors.

“Those skills I used all those years are perfect for genealogy,” Fleming said. “You could actually have fun with a computer.”

As for history, “people don’t realize how connected we are,” she said. “That’s why history didn’t interest me.”

The connections have piled up over the years that Fleming has pursued genealogies. There was the great-grandmother who also worked for the phone company. There was Stelton Road that she passed every day going to work and that turns out to be named for an ancestor. There was the ancestor she discovered in Williamsport, Pa., while researching her former husband’s genealogy.

Fleming’s initial goals were modest. She wanted to find out where her Italian grandparents came from. It was a question she had asked as a child.

“One from the north; one from the south,” her grandmother had told her.

Fleming assumed she meant something like Milan and Naples. It turned out they were from two towns on the southern coast of Sicily. To her grandmother it was like saying one from North Litchfield, one from South Litchfield, Fleming said.

Her grandfather always said he arrived at Ellis Island in New York. Fleming couldn’t find any record of his arrival. But she traced the ship and its route through the Mediterranean Sea and across the Atlantic. It docked in Boston, where her grandfather officially entered the U.S., before sailing on to New York, where he disembarked at Ellis Island.

The path to Italy was short, but it provided challenges as Fleming searched for records. Her mother’s family, the Leggios and the Gurrieris, were the subject of many fanciful spellings in census and other records. Even her mother’s marriage license shows her name was initially written as Peggio.

When she started searching her father’s family, the Bonniers, she came across similar spelling problems. They were listed as Bonners and even Vonniers. A Felix had become a Phelix and then a Philip. And when she looked into the Flemings she found one indexed at Thleming.

All this made Fleming something of an authority on what genealogists refer to as “brick walls.” That was the topic of a talk she gave last month to the genealogy special interest group at Waccamaw Library.

“One of the best tools you can use is your intuition,” Fleming said.

Despite her background in computers, she says much of what can be found on the Internet is either incorrect or misleading. She goes to the original documents in courthouses and libraries and has filled file cabinets with the results.

“Don’t give up. Don’t let someone turn you away,” Fleming said. “You’ll be rewarded.”

For anyone who wants to start with genealogy, she recommends starting with vital records such as birth and death certificates. “It tells you a lot of information,” she said. “It gets you going.”

But records vary according to the period, so historical context is important. She recommends creating a timeline of family history to help provide perspective.

“Many brick walls are built from errors,” she said. She only discovered the Vonnier error by looking for another ancestor named Eves. It turned out he was living with the victims of the census taker’s misspelling.

Fleming’s genealogy has grown so large that she has broken it down into 28 “books,” each represented by a three-ring binder on the bookshelf in her home office. She has filled out four of those volumes. She prepared one for her uncle, the last living survivor of her father’s generation.

It’s a family history that adds narrative muscle to the bare bones of births, marriages and deaths. All the sources are listed in footnotes. Where information is still missing or unconfirmed, Fleming has typed it in red.

Coe Schofield, the first husband of a grandmother, is “one of my highest brick walls,” Fleming said. “He’s still hiding from me.”

To learn more

The Grand Strand Genealogy Club meets Saturday at 10:15 at the Chapin Memorial Library in Myrtle Beach. Rachel Reed will give an introduction to Microsoft Excel software and talk about using databases.

The Waccamaw Neck Computer Club’s genealogy special interest group meets Monday at 9:30 a.m. at the Waccamaw Library. Mary Anne Bennedetto will discuss writing memoirs.

Read more: In the first article in the series, Glen O’Connell combs through records looking for a sense of place. Click to read.

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