By Lane Page
6:00 AM EDT, May 29, 2014
Among the generations of fine ancestors Dennis Ayers discovered while climbing through the branches of his family tree are a "witch" and an "Indian-slayer." Then there's the 11th-century tale of the origin of his family name with William the Conqueror's British invasion force, and the coincidental 20th-century return of the family to a farm just four miles from ancestral land across the Patapsco River.
And that's just in his father's father's line.
With results like this, no wonder genealogy is the fastest growing hobby in the country, says Ayers, who lives in Ellicott City and is president of the Howard County Genealogical Society.
Curious baby boomers seem to represent many of the family history seekers.
"Usually it's retired people who have time and resources," Ayers said. "As we get older and thoughts of our own mortality enter .… the question of just who am I becomes more important," he explains, adding that typically, it's possible to go 10 or 11 generations back.
When digging into your ancestral past, researchers never know what, or who, they will find.
For Ayers, the "witch," Mary Ayre Parker, is an eighth great-grand-aunt and daughter of John Ayre who immigrated from Wiltshire in the Stonehenge area to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635. Parker was one of 18 accused of witchcraft and was hung in Salem in 1692.
"Indian-slayer" and fourth-great-grandfather Bailey Ayers was among the 4,000 Kentucky Mounted Volunteer Militia called to pursue into Canada and eventually kill British ally Tecumseh and his followers during the War of 1812.
Ayers' sixth great-grandfather Nathaniel Ayers arrived in Maryland in the 1720s, obtaining four land grants north of the Patapsco in what is now the Hollofield area near Dogwood Road. He sold them and moved on to southern Virginia in 1755. After World War II, Dennis Ayers' father, who knew nothing of his ancestry, bought a farm in Woodstock and brought the line back to Maryland.
Ayers has begun to fill a binder with anecdotes of family ancestry to go along with a tree chart. He's completed a chapter on his paternal grandfather's side, another on his maternal grandfather's line and is now hunting his paternal grandmother's side.
"Charts are just names, dates and places, but if you can put stories behind them it gets interesting," Ayers said.
He prefers to call genealogical studies "family history," noting that "everyone has a tremendous tree with many, many branches," whatever combination of heroes, black sheep and ordinary folks they may include.
HCGS members meet on the second Wednesday of each month, September to June, at the Ellicott City Senior Center behind the Miller branch library. They can begin by exchanging notes, sharing research techniques and browsing materials and books for sale, some brought in by members who have finished researching with them.
While the books tend to apply to those with at least some local ancestry, the nonprofit organization's name doesn't mean it's necessarily tied to Howard County research.
"We're a research resource for anyone and the speakers we have are germane to any search," Ayers said.
On Saturday afternoons, members volunteer at a help desk at the County Historical Society Archive and Research Library, located in the Miller branch library, to provide assistance with research techniques and international quests, especially in breaking down the proverbial "brick wall" to make an elusive connection.
And they'll refer you to classes on topics such as locating, compiling and preserving records offered by the public library system and Howard Community College as well.
Some HCGS members can be found volunteering at the Columbia Maryland Family History Center, located in the lower level of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, off Route 29 just north of Dorsey's Search village.
Although LDS church members are strongly encouraged by doctrine to trace their ancestry, many of the center volunteers and patrons do not belong to the church, and all are welcome to use the center's resources.
Dottie Aleshire has been helping seekers every Monday for some 30 years. Her interest dates back to childhood when her mother died and, she said, her hard-working father wasn't available to answer questions. There were no ancestral records such as she later saw in her husband's family Bible, nor could she fill out her side of the family tree in her children's baby books.
Since then she's been learning by taking classes, reading and doing research for others. Finding her own lineage has made her expert in things Polish; other volunteers have expertise from French Canadian to Welsh and they all assist interchangeably.
Recently, Aleshire worked with Evelyn and Gene Russell, of Owings Mills, the latter having discovered a Union Army fifer in his family tree, which led to a jolly interchange about how a fife could even be heard over the din of battle.
Ellicott City resident Lenore Weinig, meanwhile, is a daily visitor (her husband calls it her playgroup) struggling to trace both parental lines by reading microfilm of hand-written documents in Portuguese.
"By about three hours, I start to go cross-eyed," Weinig said.
Aleshire introduced her to a book titled "Following the Paper Trail," by Jonathan Shea and William Hoffman, which includes transcripts and examples of documents such as birth records, passports and civil regulations in every European language. It's one of 1,500 volumes in the center's collection, most of which are not available from public libraries.
The center does not lend its reference books. Materials must be used on site, although documents can be scanned onto a personal flash drive at no cost.
The center also houses more than 1,500 microfilms and 1,800 microfiche. And almost all of the millions of microfilms and microfiche at the main center of the Church of Ladder-Day Saints in Salt Lake City can be ordered online to be viewed here.
Subscription websites such as ancestry.com and World Vital Records, which would probably cost $1,000-$1,500 a year, can be accessed free at the local center, Aleshire said.
While most patrons during daytime are those without full-time jobs, CMFHC director Wanda Franklin said evening and Saturday hours are when younger researcher come in.
"You can't understand yourself until you understand what came before you," she maintains. "After 9/11, the children who did best [psychologically] were those who knew their family histories."
Aleshire said that even with so much information online, privacy and copyright laws prevent some documents from being made available online including some obituaries.
And although it's true there's more being uploaded all the time, you never know exactly what it will be, adds volunteer Kay Rose.
At the center everyone helps each other, Rose said, sharing tips and ideas in "a wonderful support system."
"When I found my great-great-grandfather, I was jumping up and down, and so was everyone else here," daily visitor Weinig said.
Call in the experts
Eileen Souza is a trained professional genealogist and owner of Old Bones Genealogy in Eldersburg. Also among her clientele are those too distant — out of state or even the country — and of course those who want to know their ancestry but don't have time or don't want to want to do the digging.
"I get the hard stuff, people who have been researching and hit the brick wall," Souza said.
They may be seeking the identity and date of their ancestor who immigration to America, she said, or looking for obituaries and family burial sites, records such as deeds and other documents or even photos of ancestral villages.
There's plenty of drama among ordinary people, Souza maintains.
In her own family Souza discovered a great-grandfather who was the subject of national news coverage about a century ago when he was sued for breach of promise of marriage, lost the case and had to sell inherited land to pay damages of $3,000.
Souza specializes in counties found in central Maryland but is able to get information online from other states, or contact local experts through her professional memberships if needed. In fact, she's been surprised that about half her business has been outside Maryland
Since beginning her company in 2011 after retiring from a career in computers, Souza no longer has the time to work on her own family tree, which is one reason she has been in contact with a German genealogist to trace her roots there.
"Who would want to spend thousands for travel to get $30 worth of work?" she said.
Souza's fee is $40 per hour of research, with packages ranging from $380 for 10 hours to $1,280 for 40 or more hours.
For those doing their own research as well as those who hire experts, Ayers and Rose advise talking to any and all surviving family members while you can and writing it all down.
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