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    West Nassau Genealogical Society members Peter Mullen, Dot Higginbotham, Claude Arpen, Sheila Page and Ivy Phillips look over historical information from various resources inside the Callahan Branch Library July 11.

Exploring family history

When researching family trees, talk with elders sooner rather than later to information. 

West Nassau Genealogical Society member Wayne Wingate recommends asking relatives questions to learn family history. “Go to the oldest person in your family and record them,” he said July 8.

The society formed in the early 2000s and has participated with numerous research projects within Nassau County. Members meet the second Monday of each month at 10:30 a.m. at the Callahan Lions Club on U.S. 1, just north of the Northeast Florida Fairgrounds. 

Member Dot Higginbotham encourages others to know their family history.

“We’re trying to get people started as soon as possible on genealogy so they can talk to relatives,” she said. 

Higginbotham’s descendants are linked to Nassau County’s founding families. She began researching her past when she was about 26 years old. 

“I had a cousin and his wife who started doing family ancestry,” she said. “They started a family reunion and, along with other cousins, we did a lot of visits to the courthouse to look up records, because that was the only way you could back then.” 

The family retrieved enough information to create books for their relatives. 

To keep those connections current, the Higginbothams meet each year on the third Saturday of October with other kin, including the Braddocks, Wingates, Vanzants and Picketts. 

With the advent of websites like ancestry.com, genealogical research can yield faster results. Libraries are also a source to research the family tree, with general and specific materials about genealogy available.

“It’s important to know your history when you’re trying to know yourself,” said Callahan Branch Librarian Beth McKibben-Nee. “It’s a key part of understanding the culture of your family and understanding the culture of your community.” 

If online research isn’t handy, family recipes may contain anecdotes or tidbits that provide information. Old newspapers can also provide information. 

“Everyone has the same story; we regret that we didn’t write down everything our grandparents said. I read obits every day,” said Mike Lawson, Southern Genealogist’s Exchange Society, Inc. president. “They’re a wonderful source, but stress can affect the source.” 

Because of the costs of publishing obituaries, they are becoming fewer and fewer, according to Lawson. 

Higginbotham also views obituaries as a vital link for records.

“That’s the last thing our children can do for us, is to plan our funerals and make sure we’re buried,” she said. 

Shelia Page has visited cemeteries in Florida and Georgia to learn about her descendants. She has ties to the Rowell and Nelson families in the area. Grandmother Annie Villa Chesser Nelson was a Chesser Island, Ga. native. 

“I like knowing where I came from and knowing my ancestors – where they came from and what they did,” Page said. 

Higginbotham said some family trees yield surprises that some descendants may want to stay buried. 

“In doing genealogy, we have learned that there are no skeletons in the closet; it’s called character in the family,” she quipped. “If you didn’t do something good or bad, it’s hard to find records.”

Peter Mullen joined the group about three years ago. He cautions researchers to verify everything, especially non-English language sources, as information may be lost in translation. He is researching Juan Alonso Cavala, a Timucuan Native American who lived in Florida during the mid-1700s. 

“I didn’t know what genealogy was until I got mixed up with this group,” he joked. “What I learned was, just because it’s written down in a book or a newspaper doesn’t mean it’s accurate. It involves a little more research and verifying the validity.”

Member Ivy Phillips has long cultivated her love for digging into her family’s roots. 

“I got interested pretty much as a teenager, because my sister was trying to get information,” she recalled. 

Phillips experienced challenges to find direct information, as her grandparents died when they were in their 40s and 50s. Her earliest known descendant was John W. Williams. From Montgomeryshire, Wales, he immigrated to America as an indentured servant around 1691. He eventually became a prosperous landowner in Brunswick County, Va., according to Phillips. 

“What he wound up amassing and the property, it’s kind of mind blowing to think they were able to accomplish that,” she said. 

Fellow member Claude Arpen began his family’s genealogy when he was around 40 years old. 

The Arpens came to Jacksonville in 1870 from Charleston, S.C. to join other family members who had arrived earlier. He shares his lineage with the Witschen family of Germany. His descendants established the first Lutheran congregation in Duval County. Early members met in homes before St. Johns Evangelical Lutheran Church was built in 1877. 

“I was just always curious about where we came from,” Arpen said. “Not only that, but where did Germans come from and where did Italians come from?” 

Now 73, he contributes updates about the society’s events to the media. 

At next month’s meeting Aug. 12, Ann Staley will speak about “Starting and Maintaining a Pioneer Descendants Program.” Staley is an educator and consultant and co-leads Ann-Mar Genealogy Trips. She participates in numerous genealogical societies and groups across the U.S. 

The public is invited to attend the free genealogical program.

Nassau County Record

Nassau County Record
P.O. Box 609
Callahan, FL 32011

Physical Address
617317 Brandies Avenue
Callahan, FL 32011

Phone: (904) 879-2727
Fax: (904) 879-5155