Jean Cooper Luca DiCecco

Genealogy has been all the rage recently. First Henry Louis Gates Jr. uncovered Oprah’s heritage in Finding Oprah’s Roots, Finding Your Own. Then the Rev. Al Sharpton discovered that relatives of Strom Thurmond, the late South Carolina senator, owned one of Sharpton’s forebears. This newfound appreciation for what lineage reveals makes librarian and genealogist Jean Cooper smile. “I think it’s kind of a compulsion to find out these things,” says the 24-year veteran of the UVA Library system.

Cooper’s interest in genealogy dates to her schoolgirl days in Michigan, when she became curious about her father’s South Carolina roots. Because of geographical distance, she recalls, “It took years and years to get information.” In the interim, she researched the heritage of European royal families. “I also did the genealogy of horses,” she says.

According to Cooper, who purchased the University’s first online catalog, computer technology has dramatically improved genealogical research. “It’s like night and day,” she says. “Genealogists were among the first individuals to realize the Internet could be used for more than academic research, more than selling things, and more than pornography.” Genealogists now share tips and information electronically, and many libraries have indexed their genealogical holdings online.

For Cooper, enabling people to navigate the available resources is an important public service of the University, which houses the state’s second largest genealogical collection after the Library of Virginia. Every spring and fall, Cooper offers a popular seminar on the basics of genealogical research for alumni and their families. She’s also published an index of microfilmed plantation records compiled from 14 libraries, and she’s finishing a forthcoming book, Charlottesville and Albemarle County: An Historical Guide to Central Virginia.

One interesting tidbit she discovered about her own family is an indirect ancestor who was excommunicated from the church. “For the Baptists,” she jokes, “I think that means you’re kicked out until you say you’re sorry.” Her forebear’s 18th-century transgression? Unapologetically allowing his daughter and her friends to dance.

Cooper says the anecdote illustrates how genealogy means much more than tracking down names and dates: “It brings history alive.”

For a guide to UVA’s genealogical resources, visit lib.virginia.edu/genealogy.

Other Avenues

Sources you might not think to check for genealogical information:

U.S. Bureau of Land Management (glorecords.blm.gov): Land patents document the federal government’s transfer of land ownership to individuals. More than two million records from 1820 to 1908 exist for Eastern public land states. Find out when and where your ancestors owned land.

Revolutionary War pension and bounty files: To qualify for pensions and bounty land-for-service, Revolutionary War veterans had to provide proof of identity. Pension and bounty files may contain letters outlining family relationships and events during the Revolution. These files are available through the Virginia public library system’s subscription to Heritage Quest Online.

Freedmen’s bank records: Soon after the Civil War, the federal Freedmen’s Bureau established banks to serve newly freed slaves. To set up an account, an individual completed a form specifying name, residence, date and place of birth, plus the names of parents, siblings and spouse. These files are available through the Virginia public library system’s subscription to Heritage Quest Online.

Church records: An example is the Southern Baptist Historical Society’s collection of microfilmed record books that date from the 1700s to the present (sbhla.org). Most denominations keep records from their early years, which contain information about church membership and activities of individual congregants.

Plantation records: Many plantation records contain slave lists and other information about enslaved individuals. One example is Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations, which can be viewed in the microforms room at Alderman Library.