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How you can find out if you’re related to someone very famous

Inspired by the rich history of Richmond, CBS 6 anchor Rob Cardwell delves into the eye-opening world of genealogy. 

“Richmond? Virginia?!”  That was my reaction nearly 14 years ago when a friend of mine asked if I’d like to interview for a job at CBS 6.

I’d spent the last 7 years as a news anchor in Panama City Beach, Florida.  Before that, I spent 8 years in the Air Force.  I’d seen over a dozen foreign countries and been stationed in several cities abroad and in the United States.  I’d never been to Richmond.  But I would soon find out, I wasn’t the first Cardwell to call it home.

Growing up in Florida the only thing I knew about my family was that we were good at not getting eaten by alligators.  My father didn’t talk much about the dad who’d left him as a very young boy, even when I asked him.  As I grew older, I wanted to make sure my only son knew something about his family line.

Inspired by the rich history of Richmond, I delved into the eye-opening world of genealogy.

Genealogy is the history of your family, showing you how the different members are related to each other.  It’s climbing the branches of your family tree, giving it a good shake, and seeing who falls out.

If you’ve ever been interested, but didn’t know where to start, try the Chesterfield County Library.

Library users now have access to advanced features of ancestry.com, the world’s largest online family history resource.  The library edition of the popular genealogy hub enables family history buffs to explore more than 12 billion historical records, including census documents, family histories and more.

To use the new service, history-seekers must access the site from one of Chesterfield County Public Library’s nine branch locations, using one of the library’s computers or from a personal laptop or other device using Wi-Fi within the library. Then visit library.chesterfield.gov, go to the “Resources” button and click “View all Databases.”

“The online data bases you have to subscribe to can be quite expensive,” Chesterfield Library genealogy expert Martha Santoro said.  “We want to give people a chance to get started without any cost to them.”

Among the resources offered are:

  • Over 7,000 databases of genealogical material.
  • Millions of census records from the U.S., Canada and Europe.
  • Birth, death and marriage records.
  • More than 150 million military records from the Colonial period through Vietnam.
  • Millions of photos, newsreels and other media files.
  • Chinese surname records and Jewish family records from Europe.

Christen, a Chesterfield resident who moved there from Texas, used the ancestry.com resources.  She knows a thing or two about trees because she works for Virginia State Parks.  What she didn’t know, was much about her “family tree.”

In her genealogy search, she found something very cool!

“I found I share a common ancestor with Jesse James,” Christen said. “He’s part of the American story, and to find that you share a link in some way is fascinating!”

Christen also found something that raised the eyebrows of her and her husband Todd.  They’re not kissin’-cousins, but they do share a common ancestor with each other.

“Actually, that’s not all that uncommon,”Sabrina Petersen, Director of Operations, Global Imaging for ancestry.com, said.

Petersen says people at Jamestown in 1607 and other settlements married, had kids and spread out across the New World.  You’ll likely find your family lines cross with some people you know, whether in person, or from history.

“You’re probably going to find someone famous,”  Petersen said. “Maybe it wasn’t Jesse James, but if you a little digging there’s someone famous in almost every family line.”

Sabrina volunteered to help me find out more.  What I found about my particular Cardwell family line on Ancestry.com led us to the Library of Virginia in downtown Richmond.  In their many records I verified I’m related to Richard Cardwell, a judge and Virginia speaker of the house after the Civil War.

The Cardwell community in Goochland is named after some of my ancestors.

I also found out the grandfather I never knew lived in Oklahoma and flew in 50 combat missions during World War Two.

His grandfather was a Midwest pioneer, the last living person who helped build the Frisco railroad.

His father, Pleasant Cardwell was wounded at the Siege of Vicksburg, shot in both feet with one musket ball.

His father, Noah fought during the War of 1812.

And his grandfather fought in the Battle of Gilfords Courthouse during the American Revolution.

Here’s where it gets really interesting.  Remember when I said I knew nothing of Richmond before I moved here?

In 1689, Thomas Cardwell, one of my many, many great grandfather’s ago owned the 550 acres on the north side of the James River, starting where Gilley’s Creek runs into it.

According to James D. Hester, the Richmond City Assessor of Real Estate, if my family still owned just the land itself today, it would be worth approximately $161-million!

If only old Thomas had the foresight to think of me coming back home 311 years later.

I also found I’m related to bootleggers, kidnappers, NFL football heroes… and a very nice surprise… I’m related to Christen.  We have the same great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother!

It’s discovering the unknown that make genealogy so cool.

“Well it’s your own history,” Sabrina said.  “Isn’t that the fun of it?  You’re like a mini-detective in your own story.”

There are numerous genealogy subscription sites out there and I’m no way suggesting ancestry.com is the only way to go.  Before you spend one dime on a paid subscription do your research on which site is best for your needs.

You can find access to the free ancestry.com tools at the following Virginia locations:

  • Chesterfield County Library
  • Lewis Egerton Smoot Memorial Lib
  • Heritage Public Library
  • Williamsburg Regional Library
  • Heritage Public Library (New Kent)

The program is basically library-driven, meaning ancestry.com works with a number of libraries across the country and offers institutional accounts to them. It certainly can extend to other libraries, but that is more dependent on the library.  If you don’t have access to these locations, ancestry.com is free all the time to build out a family tree.  It’s the records access that will cost you a subscription fee.  There is also a two-week free trial to check out the records.

There are also numerous free resources available at libraries, museums and genealogy clubs for your research.

And here’s something to mark on your calendar:

Genealogists of all skill levels will meet at the National Genealogical Society 2014 Family History Conference in Richmond from May 7-10.  The program features topics including Virginia records; military, state and federal records; and ethnic groups.

The Library of Virginia also has an African American Genealogy Workshop scheduled for April.

Take it from me; once you get started in genealogy research…you’re hooked!

So go ahead, shake the branches of your family tree.  You never know who’s going to fall out.

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