Catonsville family traces roots to Virginia settlers in 1600s

A century ago, the Page family settled in Catonsville, founded a church and operated the neighborhood grocery out of the front rooms of a home on Winters Lane.

Still, the family's 99-year-old matriarch, Eva Page Brooks — whose living room was once that family store — could not trace its history back more than a few generations.

But thanks to the Internet and a DNA sample, the Catonsville clan has become the first black family — and the first Baltimoreans — to verify their descent from two 17th- and 18th-century settlers of Virginia and become members of a group dedicated to their legacy, the Page-Nelson Society.

In addition to their ties to Col. John Page, who settled in Virginia's lower peninsula about 1650, and Thomas "Scotch Tom" Nelson, who arrived in Yorktown in 1703, the Catonsville Pages have discovered among their ancestors a signer of the Declaration of Independence, heroes of the Revolutionary and Civil wars, abolitionists and farmers who gave up land to build Williamsburg, the capital of Colonial Virginia, and the College of William & Mary.

"It just gave me goosebumps to find out," said Brooke Warren Batson, a Page cousin. "I am ecstatic. I love history and I have found how compelling and interesting my own history is."

The sentiment is shared by her many relatives, who frequently gather at the Winters Lane home. The store they called Catonsville's first 7-Eleven is long gone, but the friendliness remains of an era when neighbors exchanged news while buying groceries.

The Pages reunite at least once a year — 100 attended the 2010 reunion in Jessup — to share stories, look through photo albums, introduce new babies and celebrate recent graduates. They even have a family anthem they sing to the tune of "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Instead of "Glory, glory, hallelujah," their refrain begins "What a joy it is to be together."

The family initially ran into a hurdle common to African-American families: Few slave records have survived time, the Civil War and fires.

"Often, there are just inferences written or special treatment recorded in a will," said Thomas P. Nelson Jr., the Page-Nelson Society's vice president.

Angie Page, 59, has delved into her family history for years, trying to piece together a written record for future generations. She has diagrammed the ever-expanding branches of the family tree and has taken copious notes from Page lore, but until recently, details on earlier ancestors were scarce.

"We wanted to know because as African-Americans, we are not always privy to our history," said the retired state employee who lives in Ellicott City. "Now we know how well we all worked together to establish this country. Now our children and their children know their history."

The Internet finally helped family members document their history all the way back to the 17th century.

After one family researcher learned of the Page-Nelson Society at a genealogy convention in Utah, the family discovered a possible link to Mann Page III, an 18th-century landowner who believed in emancipation and freed many of his own slaves.

To firmly establish ties to the Page-Nelson Society, Angie Page ordered a standard DNA kit over the Internet and gave it to her cousin Earl Page. He took the cheek swab test, and the society compared the results to its records.

"The test cost me $500, but it was well worth it," Angie Page said.

Now, during visits to Catonsville, the Pages sit around the large table in Brooks' dining room and compare their own sepia-toned photographs to images in Virginia's history books. They point to certain similar facial features, especially the characteristic dimples that reappear in every generation.

"All this research is worth the trouble, because it gives us a family history that we deserve," said Jackie Page Thomas of Eldersburg. "Our history does not make us better than others, but it is what we deserve to know about ourselves."

Mary H. Claycomb, president of the Page-Nelson Society, praised the family's efforts.

"This family has shown wonderful persistence in following the trail of their ancestry," Claycomb said. "They have also shown how close and critical were the early interdependencies between whites and blacks."

The Pages have long recognized their ancestry includes interracial relationships.

"It was not that long ago that you didn't speak of interracial relationships," Thomas said. "You were just black, and your white ties were best left unknown."

Melvin Patrick Ely, professor of history and Africana studies at the College of William & Mary, said research shows connections ranging from exploitative to intimate between 18th- and 19th-century whites and blacks.

"It was not the norm, but it was not a rarity for a white man to recognize a black spouse and his mixed-race children and to provide a legacy for them," Ely said. "What searchers often find is that blacks worked alongside whites in building this country and can make the same claim to heritage."

Among the most famous early Americans who had an interracial relationship was Thomas Jefferson. Descendants have documented their lineage to the president and one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings.

The society, with several hundred active members, maintains a database with more than 20,000 names at its offices in Yorktown, Va., and the Catonsville Pages are the first confirmed African-American family.

Page-Nelson staff members handle hundreds of research and membership inquiries every year, said Nelson, the vice president.

"There is just this natural curiosity to look back into history and see what your ancestors did," he said. "About 75 percent of them don't have enough information to do the linkage, and they give up."

Many members of the society do their own research through official archives. But with gaps in their recorded history, the Baltimore Pages needed a DNA match.

The resources Angie Page used to trace the family tree were mostly free, she said.

"Everyone should see how far back they can go in family history," she said. "Just start with the Internet and don't stop."

The Pages' deep family pride has grown stronger with the newly discovered connections.

"There are so few records, and so many African Americans lose track when they try to trace back," Thomas said. "We have whole gaps in our history from the time that we were not considered people."

The Pages might charter a bus or two to attend the society's gathering in Virginia in October. They will be taking their aunts, including matriarch Brooks and her 92-year-old sister, Mary Manokey, if they can travel, and as many children and grandchildren as they can muster.

"This all has been done especially for our children so that they can claim a heritage," Angie Page said.