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Features and Series
Opening Windows to the Past Through Genealogy
By Mitch Traphagen mitch@observernews.net
Jul 26, 2007, 22:29

Through an interest in genealogy, I was able to discover that my ancestor was a convicted lampoon carrier. Somehow, I find that not only fitting but also admirable. Photo illustration by Tom Wallace
RUSKIN
– Willem was in a world of hurt.  He let his emotions get the best of him and uttered a few words that were… well, less than decent.  And then, to make matters worse, he was caught carrying a note disparaging a judge.  As he spent his time tied to a stake in the center of the town that he had helped to create, he probably wondered if things could get worse.  They could – he was also ordered banished from that town. 

Willem Traphagen was my ancestor.  He arrived here in 1653 – well before this country existed.  He was a passionate man who carved his way through the wilderness of the New World, sometimes landing himself in trouble, other times finding success.  He was the epitome of an American before there was anything called America.  

Believe it or not, my ancestor was convicted as a Lampoon Carrier.  Yes, that was the charge for which he was tied to a stake.  He also had a note pinned to his shirt describing him as such.


And I know about my nearly 400-year-old ancestor through genealogical research.  Looking into the past can be time consuming and sometimes frustrating, but also rewarding in ways that defy belief – and it is an increasingly popular pastime for millions of Americans.  With the advent of the Internet, more than ever, it is possible to know from whence we came.  Many years ago, a distant relative named Christopher Brooks began to research the genealogy of Willem, it was through the Web that I found Christopher and thus opened a window to my past.


With the rising popularity of genealogy, there are literally hundreds of Websites dedicated to that interest.  Increasingly, however, many sites are beginning to charge fees for access to their data.  Fortunately, as residents of Hillsborough County, there is a vast and unique resource available for free – at the public library.  The newly opened SouthShore Regional Library includes a section strictly for genealogy research – and provides a venue for classes and other resources to help people get started.


The South Bay Genealogy Society, with more than 175 members, holds classes at the library, which is located near Beth Shields Middle School off 19th Ave. in Ruskin.  Beginning on Aug. 25, Sharon Tate Moody, a columnist for the Tampa Tribune and the president of the Association of Professional Genealogists will begin a series of classes entitled Heritage Hunting.  The course, available at no charge, will cover basic research methods and provide an introduction to American genealogy records.


Some of the resources from the Hillsborough County Library are also as close as your home computer.  By visiting the library at www.thpl.org, you can access dozens of records and databases – a few of which would otherwise charge for access.  By going through the library, however, all that is required is a library card.


Also on the Web are sites such as ancestry.com that allow users to create a living family tree – and you can invite other members of your family to participate.  On another site, olivetreegenealogy.com, there is a comprehensive listing of ships that sailed from the Old World to the New – and in some cases includes passenger manifests.  And once you begin to find the first few steps of your ancestors, the possibilities begin to greatly expand.


In my case, as I began to learn the whereabouts of my ancestors, more information became available.  From the Website of the Ulster County New York archives, I found a simple document – the minutes of a town board meeting in 1712.  Included on the document was the name of another ancestor, William Traphagen.  Nearly 300 years ago he attended that meeting and in his wildest dreams he could not possibly imagined that in the 21st century, his relatives would view that document and marvel at the history of it.  He could not possibly have conceived that simple document would fire dreams and imaginations three centuries later.  But it did.


And while genealogy can sometimes become an expensive passion that includes travel and hours spent pouring over ancient records, it doesn’t always have to be that way.  Recently, I began to plan for a trip to New York to search for documents from my past.  Prior to leaving, I made a call to the Ulster County archives and was put in touch with Ken Gray, a research technician employed there.  After discussing the documents I was looking for, he offered to obtain them and make color copies.  As a result, instead of booking a flight, renting a car and incurring hotel charges, Mr. Gray was able to find the documents in exchange for a few dollars in copy fees.


The Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck, NY, is the oldest continously operating inn in the U.S. George Washington was once a guest and American troops once practiced drills on the front lawn during the Revolutionary War. The inn began as the Traphagen Tavern in 1766. Researching our ancestors can be sometimes dull, sometimes frustrating but almost always rewarding. Mitch Traphagen Photo
And what documents could have been so important to warrant such an effort?  Well, it seems we are not the only generation interested in our past.  Sometime before his death, my ancestor Willem took the unusual step of reciting his genealogy to the court, thus creating a permanent and official record of his past.  That document, written in 1671, more than a century before the Declaration of Independence, is one of many links to my past.

In a world that seems full of questions, through genealogy perhaps a few answers can be found.  In learning about our past, maybe the future will be a little more clear.  It is an effort that can pay huge rewards in ways unexpected – and at absolutely no cost, you can start with the tremendous resources offered by the local public library.

In my case, of course, it somehow seems fitting that I am descended from a convicted lampoon carrier.  That definitely answers a few questions.



Links to help you get started:

The Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative Information Gateway

The South Bay Genealogy Society

Ancestry.com

Olivetreegenealogy.com




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