We know Halloween is a time for candy and costumes, but historically it was a time to remember and honor the dead. What better way to remember and honor the dead than to learn about them through genealogy? Thousands are bewitched by genealogical research and studies have shown that just the act of pondering our ancestors and origins can enhance intellectual performance.
But readers beware: efforts to discover ancestors may uncover a spooky story or two. In my own research I have found that my 5th great-grandfather was brutally murdered by a disgruntled heir to a will he had witnessed as a Pennsylvania Justice of the Peace in 1817. I also discovered that Samuel Willey, Jr., a man who was infamously swept away with his entire family in a landslide in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in 1826, is my distant relative. Using resources in the DAR Library’s State & Regions collection, I found accounts of both these incidents. The stories are also documented in newspapers available in the Seimes Technology Center through the library’s subscription to Readex's Early American Newspapers.
Whatever spooky stories belong to your family tree, Halloween and genealogy certainly go hand in hand. In the spirit of the season, here are 5 ways to celebrate Halloween with a genealogical twist. All books mentioned are held by the DAR Library. Happy Haunting!
- Research the legends and folklore of your ancestor’s hometown. Understanding the history of where they lived will help you learn more about them. Take it one step further and research the genealogy of their house. Life of a Haunted House: The Barnstable House of Barnstable, Massachusetts by Paul J. Bunnell, a certified ghost hunter, boasts to be the “Genealogy of a Real Haunted House.” http://www.hauntedhouses.com/states/ma/cape_cod_barnstable.htm
- Fall is the perfect time to make grandma’s famous apple pie or grandpa’s secret chili. Don’t have a family recipe that’s been passed down through the ages? Research and cook up a traditional recipe from the place where an ancestor lived. You might stumble upon a family history AND a cookbook like the Dellinger family: American history and cookbook by Marlene Melching and Mary Geisman. Double score!
- Visit cemeteries and look for your ancestor’s graves. Not only can you get useful genealogical information on gravestones, but you can also take pictures for Findagrave.com and BillionGraves.com to help other researchers. Sometimes there are interesting epitaphs on the gravestones. Over their dead bodies: Yankee epitaphs & history by Thomas C. Mann and Janet Greene tells us “There is nothing morbid in the hobby of collecting epitaphs from cemeteries.”
- Find out if you’re descended from a witch or a vampire. Even if you don’t have ancestors from Salem, you may have an ancestor from Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. All of these states had witch trials before 1800. If you have ancestors from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont they may have been involved with the “New England Vampire Panic” of the late 19th century, when many believed that an outbreak of tuberculosis was caused by the dead feasting on their living relatives. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-new-england-vampire-panic-36482878/?no-ist
- Finally, if you are still looking for a Halloween costume you can always dress up as one of your ancestors!