Genealogy Offers Fun Project For Retirees

Burlington Free Press 4 April 2005

Barbara J. Leitenberg


You never know what surprises may await you when you start to explore your family tree. Cathy Howell of Williston recently found that a possible ancestor others, who fell in the battle of Ancrum Moor in Scotland in 1545, was skinned because his English forces were known for their cruelty, and his skin was made into purses for the Scot soldiers. Howell found this story while she was trying to trace a town name and match it to a date for another person in her family tree.


"Genealogy is a study dominated by retirees," says John Fisher, president of the Vermont French-Canadian Genealogical Society. "They have the time and the interest in connecting with their history," he says. "And they have the desire to help the new generation learn who they are."


Richard Rubin, writing about genealogy for this month's issue of AARP Magazine, has another take on a hobby that can become an addiction; He notes that, "Yes, on some level people get into genealogy because they want to learn more about themselves, but on another, deeper level they do it for the same reason that people do almost everything that's not directly related to putting food on the table or perpetuating the species: because they want to feel that they are a part of something much bigger than just themselves."


Howell enjoys the thrill of the hunt for new facts. Building on her mother's research, she is tracing the history of eight families — her great grandparents. She has tracked more than 13,000 people so far, "at various levels of confidence,"she says. The earliest goes back to 964 A.D., but Howell says that she does not totally trust the accuracy of her data, especially for that before 1500. At a reunion of her grandmother's siblings and their families, she was able to tell a cousin why he has a strange middle name. She had found that name when she traced the relationships of his mother, who had died when he was a child. "You can spend 24 hours each day on this," she says. Retired from doing research with UVM's Psychiatry Department in data management and analysis, Howell says, "I'm one of those obsessive-compulsive detail people."

Howell has confirmed her connection to a family who lived outside of Boston in the 17th century and was attacked by Indians. The mother and children hid in the attic and survived, as did a baby (Howell's ancestor) who was thrown out of the window. The ancestor was always teased for being short, supposedly for being stunted by being thrown out the window.  "What fun to know that," she says. She also enjoys getting a glimpse of life in past years. "I find the most fun in the stories," she says, "not the dates. The dates are often typos." In town histories she can find out who bought land, who got into trouble, who was highly respected - as evidenced by involvement in community affairs. She has found family records showing that several children in a family shared a single name. When one young John died, the next boy was often named John. Sometimes he died also, and a new baby was named John again. "I try to imagine losing children like that," she says, "and how it can feel naming the next one with the same name. They certainly led different lives from ours."

Howell has an antique quilt given her by her mother, who died before telling her its history. "You don't pay attention to your mother's stories," she says, "and then it's too late." But she also has a photograph of her grandmother as a little girl, wearing a plaid dress that looks like a piece of fabric in the quilt. Howell likes to imagine how her great grandmother may have made the quilt using the dress fabric a few years after the photo was taken — possibly during a quiet time when she was pregnant with another child.


Mary McClintock of Burlington enjoys the historical imagining more than the tracing of hard data. She has been fascinated for years by her father's story although he never was willing to talk about it. McClintock's father was one of the dozens of young orphans shipped by train in the early 20th century from New York City to Catholic parishes in Vermont. Families here took in the children, some as young as 4 or 5 years old, and agreed to raise them. McClintock tries to imagine why his 'mother gave him up, how it can feel to have no connection to brothers or sisters. But busy with her own six children and 14 grandchildren, she is not a researcher. "I think that there's one in every generation," she says. "My daughter loves it."


Janet Allard of Essex inherited her work on her family tree from her parents, through her grandfather. She can trace her family's branches as they moved from England to Massachusetts to Rhode Island to New York to Canada and then to Vermont. "It's a good hobby," she says. "It can be carried down through the generations." She donates her work to various state archives.


Howell advises newcomers to the search for family roots to look for original documents like town records and birth certificates, write down sources for each fact, and take information from the internet with "shakers full of salt."


On April 23, the Vermont French-Canadian Genealogical Society will hold its “Spring Workshop”, featuring experts in family research in New York State. Even if your ancestors are not French, the VT-FCGS can help you get started.


Barbara J. Leitenberg writes  about senior issues biweekly. For more information about services or elders, call the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging at (800) 643-5119.


More information: Vermont French-Canadian Genealogical Society, John Fisher, president,



Richard Rubin, "The Gene Pull," AARP Magazine, March/April 2005 lists resources and advice

on how to begin tracing your family tree.


Vermont Historical Society,