I came by the genealogy bug honestly: I got it from my mother.
I can’t tell you how many years Mom spent researching our family history. I know that the TV miniseries of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1977 left an impression on her. But I don’t think that was the start for her. And she was hardly the first in her family to find a fascination in clambering through the branches of the family tree. She worked on learning more for the rest of her life, traveling all around the country every year or so, visiting county seats and obscure graveyards.
When I was a kid, old enough to ask questions but not old enough to visit university libraries or work a microfilm reader, I got a thick envelope in the mail. I no longer remember who sent it to me. Was it my Uncle John (really a great-uncle), who used to play chess by mail with me? Was it my Uncle Dick (really an uncle), who had encouraged my great-aunt Mary in her pursuits? Someone else? Did Mary send me the book herself? I just don’t recall.
Inside the envelope was a big, thick book, bound with nothing more than staples through the spine, printed on 8 1/2" x 11" paper, about the thickness of half a ream of typing paper, with an unadorned light blue cover and hundreds of pages of typewritten details on thousands of family members: Here was The DeWitt Genealogy: Descendants of Tjereck Claessen DeWitt of Ulster County, New York.
I thumbed it excitedly. An index let me find my own name inside it. I studied how the book worked. A family cluster took up about a half-page: Mother, Father, and a list of kids. Each descendant of the DeWitt family was given a number—from 1 for Tjerck Claessen to 2845—and above each name in the headings was another number, representing what generation they were in, counting Tjerck as Generation 1, all the way down to Generation 11 and some of their children. Find the number of one of the kids, skip forward, and you find that kid’s own kids on a later page. The pages weren’t numbered. It wasn’t needed.
There was no introduction or explanatory note, just the byline: “Compiled by Mary V. DeWitt.” There’s not even a publishing date in the book, though I gather that it was current to sometime in the late 1960s. (I would have received it probably in the early 1970s.) There was a sheet tucked inside that gave a very general description of where the names and dates all came from.
Mary Veldran DeWitt (MVDW 2327) was my great-aunt, my grandfather’s sister. She lived in New Jersey, never married, never got a driver’s license. She saved and stored and connected, not just family details but all kinds of things, hoarding newspaper clippings and photos and memorabilia. (I am told she was quite the baseball fan.) With the assistance of others, she made frequent trips to Ulster County, where Tjerck Claessen DeWitt had settled in New York and raised his family. She went through churchyards and archives, the county recorder’s office, and other historical collections, learning more details about DeWitts and those whose family lines braided together with ours. She kept notes and files, apparently neatly organized by family name and individual.
The big blue book of DeWitts was not all she knew about the family, but it was a tour de force, presenting the entire family tree of all descendants she had been able to discover, neat and organized. Here was the whole tree.
My understanding, from a distance of many years, is that my Uncle Dick financed the printing of this compendium. (After he died, I found a cache of extra copies of the book among some of his other things. He was a collector too.)
Just putting this much together—just typing it alone, no word processor—was plenty of work for one person. As I have worked with it over the years, I have found it mostly accurate, mostly consistent. Here and there I find little glitches, though the deeper I dig, the more I see how some of the little “inconsistencies” actually represent the historical record: The boy baptized Petrus becomes the man known as Captain Peter. Folks in the 1600s, and well into the 1700s, didn’t spell their names consistently. Catharine? Katherine? Catrina? Could all be the same person. Each discrepancy reflects a written record. There’s not always a single right answer.
I do not know how many copies of the book Mary printed. I have seen it in at least one small local history library in Ulster County; I bet she passed it to others where she had unearthed useful nuggets. I have had the impression that a few larger institutions have copies too, but it’s hardly widespread or well known.
What’s not here (though Mary no doubt knew some of it): Any biographical or even geographical information about any of these people. Was this guy a lawyer? Did that family go to Canada during the Revolution? Did the infant die of typhus? None of that is here.
What’s not here: Sometimes Mary could not find any further information on a family line. Maybe that branch split off when a brother moved far from town, leaving no trace. Maybe they joined a different church, or the records were destroyed. Mary had a pretty good nose for where to get all kinds of information, but she was working before there was an Internet (or even fax machines), when photocopies were expensive, when the only way to go through an archive was to visit it in in person. Sometimes I’ll find an obscure record in my research and realize that it’s where Mary found a bit of data that had mystified me until then.
What else is not here: Mary typically followed a line as long as the family name was DeWitt, and then (often) one generation more. This means she includes information on many sons and their descendants but not nearly so many descendants of daughters. One of the many things I admired about the way Mom went about her research, a generation later: She didn't just chase a family name up a tree. She looked up wives and their families, then followed the mother’s mother’s line. She checked out what became of sisters as well as brothers. You get twice as many interesting stories that way, and often the real insight into a family comes from knowing more about where the mother came from, who her people were.
Also what’s not here: Where did any of this information come from? In my experience, it’s mostly accurate, but to build further from it, I find I often have to go back and find the original sources again myself. Knowing that a date came from a church book, a family Bible, a birth certificate, a newspaper clipping, can help us understand how much to believe it. The structure Mary presents is a huge step in the right direction, but it’s just a launch point for anyone who wants to know more of their family story.
Mary had a house full of notes and memorabilia. After she died (before I even knew much about who she was), it was never clear, at least to my part of the family, what happened to all her notes that went into the creation of this book. Having access to her files, to understand where this information came from, would be invaluable and could save us from a lot of duplicate searches, or could help guide us to find reinforcing information when her sources were less convincing. There were rumors that her collected files had been given to the D.A.R., or that all of it just went to the local Goodwill. I know that as my mom was growing up, as she grew old enough to appreciate mementos, Mary shared some handed-down objects with her—old bits of lace with notes attached, telling what baby had worn it, an old hand-tooled leather chest. Mary also kept up a lively correspondence with many other researchers, exchanging photocopies of pages from books, with handwritten notes expounding on omitted or discovered details.
I am pretty sure as of this writing (May 2022) that the bulk of Mary’s notes and files ended up, sensibly, in the hands of the Genealogical Society of Bergen County, housed in the Bolger Heritage Center at the Ridgewood Public Library in New Jersey. Mary grew up in Hackensack, also in Bergen County. I have not had a chance to visit the Heritage Center myself since running into mentions of the collection online, but in going through the notes the GSBC has published on its Website, about all kinds of family members, everything seems to match pretty exactly what’s in Mary’s book. I think her files are there, for anyone intrepid enough to go look.
As I build this Website, I have included on most pages a photograph of Mary’s details about an individual family cluster. Since they come with no explicit reference to sources, the notes are not themselves a definitive way to confirm a name or date. But time has proven them to be an excellent starting point for anyone who is looking for more information on family connections. If I know nothing more, I can post at least what Mary had found. Where I do know more, I have added guidance on sources and where to look for further information.
I also include for most individuals the number Mary assigned to each of them, which can help distinguish among (for example) the multiple Tjerck DeWitts or Andries DeWitts in various generations. Mary’s numbering scheme skips some numbers. Possibly she was leaving room to add more names as she found them, or possibly she had assigned numbers to some people who didn’t make it into the book. Her notes might make that more clear. There are cases where Mary learned later, after assigning numbers to a whole generation of family members, that maybe there were several more children in a family than she had known about before. In those cases she adds a letter to identify each new individual: MVDW 256A, MVDW 256B, MVDW 256C, and so on.
As of May 2022, I have a page on this site for everyone Mary listed up to the fourth generation of DeWitts in North America, which means that I have listed names for all the children she knew of in the fifth generation, covering roughly into the third quarter of the 1700s. This is around 500 names of the nearly 3,000 she listed (not including the many un-numbered spouses, parents, and other relations), but it’s a start.
UPDATE: As of July 2, 2023, I have a page on this site for everyone Mary listed up to the fifth generation of DeWitts in North America, which means I have listed names for all the descendants she knew of in the sixth generation, covering (I think) all the DeWitts she had found who were born in the 1600s and 1700s, and some born in the 1800s (with some living into the early 1900s). This includes around 1000 of the 2845 DeWitt descendants she listed and numbered, and it includes the full family listings of the earliest 500 of them.
Worth noting: Mary frequently skipped a few numbers here and there, perhaps leaving room for future additions, but in some cases her book omits larger stretches, as if she dropped a page or omitted an entire family. By the time the book gets to MVDW 1000, not quite 1,000 people have been named. On the other hand, the list includes a large number of people who are not direct descendants and are not numbered. There are also, by this point, a lot of gaps in the record, as the family spread out geographically and started creating new clusters far from the area where Mary was able to do her most thorough research. (I have also added a lot of unnumbered direct descendants, often guided by discoveries from other people who exchange notes on their lines; I’m not bothering to keep track of how many, but it’s got to be in the dozens.)
We stand on the shoulders of those who go before us. I know that Mary too had predecessors, but for me Mary—like my mom—will always be an inspiration, a lodestar to remind me what a piecemeal body of research can grow into, through patience, perceptive attention, careful thought, and determination.