My name is George Thomas and like most searchers of family history, I was drawn to it by the death of a loved one. At the start of 1996, I remember passing a cemetery on the way to my father’s funeral wondering if kin were buried there. Though my father came from a large family, I knew little of their history beyond the fact that I was named for my great-grandfather George Thomas.
Both of my parents were born and raised on the north side of the Rocky River in southwest Stanly County. Going upstream,the river divides Stanly from Anson and Union Counties to the south before turning north where it divides Stanly from Cabarrus County. Family stories revolved around life along the river, the hardships of farming, and gold. Gold? Yes, in the late 1790’s the first major gold strike in the United States took place in adjoining Cabarrus County with mines later spreading into Stanly.
As for my mother, her LOVE family was thick in Stanly County with roots going back to Virginia. My mom cherishes visiting and to this day, we share drives through the country and her memories of family, church, and community. There was not much need for researching her family as that history had already been researched and was complete, so we thought.
I was born and raised in Charlotte a few blocks from the home place of Rev. Billy Graham. There are many like me whose parents moved to the city in search of better jobs as an escape from the hardships of farming. I am by definition a city boy though my heritage pulls strong to the stories of life on the farm. We frequently beat the path down to the country and like most kids growing up in families with roots from western Stanly County, I always wondered what happened to the gold and why it had not made life a little easier for many of those living on the slopes along the river.
Back in the spring of 1996, an important chapter in my life opened with a visit to the North Carolina State Archives. Not knowing what to do or how to even start, I was oblivious to the chuckles from the information desk when I extended a greeting “hello, I’m George Thomas and I’m here to find everything I can about my family.”
Single, living in Raleigh, and, as an educator free from work every summer, I became a fixture in the search room at archives. Older folks were quick to take me under their wing and I had the chance to rub elbows with top shelf historians whose wisdom was there for the picking. It was as if I were living a story unfolding as new resources and research perspective wove their way into my own journey. Looking back, I really was blessed, the big enchilada sat right there before me. Instead of having to travel hundreds of miles to the place of my family’s origin, records covering my family for hundreds of years were right there.
I also had the chance to travel. Back along the Rocky River, I met other families searching for their beginning who, like me, held an equal excitement to tell their own stories. The sharing of discoveries led to more questions and pretty soon my circle of research pushed beyond North Carolina. Going west, did we cross the Appalachians or go around them? Where did the gold go when it left North Carolina? How did our story push beyond North Carolina and are there more of us out there? Hello, out there? . . . are you there??? Trips in search of such questions were made to Indiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and Washington D. C.
What began as a never ending story slowed to a near halt as my search outgrew history itself. Available records go back only so far to a point where discoveries grow farther apart and are increasingly harder to connect. Like in a desert on a horse with no name, long periods of drought are followed by breakthroughs that come more slowly. My brick wall now stands before me waiting quietly for some unsuspecting discovery born of DNA or in a record that as of now has no meaning.
It’s at this point that the work of most family historians end. A compilation may be placed in a book, but more likely, all the good stuff ends in decaying legal pads and papers piled in some box. Early on, I hung my hat to the internet, believing that online histories were the way to keep the conversation alive and the story moving forward. But even the best online family history faces its own extinction at the base of the mighty brick wall.
It’s a shame it has to end this way. There were so many ah-ha moments, so much fun and sharing, and then there was even the competition to become the first to know something new. As with life itself, the real story is in the journey, not the outcome.
In this blog, it is my intent to revisit informative little factoids that ended up as a smirk of memory or on my website as single lines of type. I want to share my joy in discovery in hopes the information will inspire others to shake their tree. Some posts will be specific to source types and how they have been ignored or misunderstood. Other posts will be on family and the many stories yet untold. I will even reach beyond the piedmont of North Carolina while remaining true to the memory of those who made their homes along the Rocky River.