Contacting Distant Cousins

Have you ever followed a lead by contacting an unknown non-genealogist cousin?

Websites like ancestry.com, findagrave.com, footnote.com etc make it very easy connect with distant cousins that share an interest in genealogy.  The rewards of those connections can be quite great.  Here’s an example:

Last year I found a story on ancestry.com involving my Davis ancestors and the Johnstown Flood of 1889.  The Davis family climbed up onto the roof for protection, but the house began to float away as water reached the 3rd floor.  As it crashed into other houses, the family was able to jump onto the roof of another, more sturdy, brick house.  Throughout the night, they heard the cries of drowning children and cattle as people floated by on wooden boards.  The inferno of debris at the stone bridge lasted three days while food and water were unobtainable.  Rachel, the youngest child, found a moldy crust of bread that she ate and said was “delicious.”

FASCINATING!  The woman that posted the story happens to share the same 3rd great grandparents as I; the story never quite made it to me, but it was passed down to her.  I sent her a message and it turns out that her mother and aunt (in their 80′s) remember my 2nd great grandmother, Margaret Davis-Updegraff (grandmother of Robert Lee Updegraff) fairly well.  Apparently, Margaret Davis-Updegraff married “well” and the Updegraffs were considered high society.  We’ve since exchanged many emails and I thoroughly enjoy hearing the stories and memories of her mother’s.

But, what’s the policy on contacting distant cousins that can’t be found via any genealogical website?  I’m lucky that the Davis’ of Johnstown memories were passed down to a woman interested in family history, but not everyone is.

Recently, while researching my Zillifro/Hutchison line, my mom informed me that 15 or so years ago she exchanged some letters with the daughter of the sister of my great grandmother Cametta Marie Hutchinson.  Her name was Dorothy and she had a great passion for genealogy.  She wrote in one of her letters that Cametta’s mother Loretta “hated her step-mother Sarah.”  Oh, step-mother?  Please tell me more!  Unfortunately, Dorothy passed away in 2001.  My mother knew Dorothy’s daughter’s name, so like a total creep, I found her in the phone book and wrote a letter introducing myself (noting that my mother and her mother had once been pen pals).   She called me a couple weeks later, clearly uninterested in the family history and told me that she had no idea where any of her mother’s family history was but would keep her eye out.  About a week later, I received in the mail about 50 pages of photos, lineages, and stories, most of which was first hand account and details I would never be able to find through vital records.  It was a genealogy gold mine.

Have you ever contacted an unknown, distant cousin (otherwise known as a complete stranger) in order to follow a lead?  It’s one thing to send an email out to your immediate relatives or participate in a message board and it’s quite another to search through the phone book and contact someone out of  the blue.  You certainly don’t want to do it all the time, but you never know what it might bring.  You may end up solving your biggest mystery.

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