On Aug. 8, 1864, Xerxes Knox was covered with the body of a dead Union soldier in a garbage cart and smuggled out of the Confederate Army’s Camp Ford, four miles outside Tyler, Texas. It was Knox’s second escape attempt after nearly three months of imprisonment. He still had to travel on foot through rebel-held territory to reach the safety of Union lines.
“I realized, had he not escaped, I may never have been born,” said Cyndi Howells, Knox’s great-great-great-granddaughter. “He gave me the life I have today.”
Howells, the creator of cyndislist.com, is a celebrity in the world of genealogical research enthusiasts. Her Web site links to more than 240,000 other genealogical sites. Howells’ popularity was what brought her to Columbia from her home in Edgewood, Wash., to be the keynote speaker at the Missouri State Genealogical Association’s 25th annual conference, which ended Saturday.
On Friday, about 300 people filled a conference room at the Holiday Inn Executive Center for a series of seminars, including Howells’ “Googling for Grandma” on how to use the popular Internet search engine to gather information about their ancestors.
Audience members clearly had experienced many of the common pitfalls of genealogical research, such as searching for a relative named “George Smith” from Pennsylvania. Howells’ suggestion was to include unique things about “George Smith” in their searches.
Genealogical researchers tend to be older, Howells said, because they have more time for research. While they are growing more comfortable using computers for their research, Howells uses as little computer lingo as possible.
“They paid $3,000 for their computer, and they’re afraid they’ll break the thing,” she said.
Howells said that by using the Internet and other records to research her family history, she realized that many of the hardships that families struggle with today are nothing compared to those of the past.
“My great-grandmother had eight kids and lived in a dirt house,” she said. “We learn what they did right and what they did wrong, and it helps me to live my life better.”
Ann Carter Fleming of Chesterfield, a professional genealogist and the scheduled keynote speaker for next year’s conference, discussed writing family histories. She said people research their families’ pasts because they are looking for answers about themselves.
“How do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from?” Fleming said.
About 60 percent of Americans are tracing their family history, according to a poll conducted in May 2000 by Maritz Research, a marketing research firm. The popularity of genealogical research was reflected in what MOSGA President David Sapp said was record attendance at this year’s conference. For the first time, Sapp said, organizers had to turn people away.
Robert Hill of Columbia has been researching his genealogy for 10 years. He said it’s the unique stories about family members that drive his interest. Hill discovered that his great-grandfather is in the College Football Hall of Fame. He played for Rutgers in the first college football game, in 1869; Rutgers won 6-4 (touchdowns were worth one point then).
“Genealogy allows you to live more than just your own life,” Hill said. “You can put yourself in the shoes of other people and find out why they did what they did, their joys, their failures. It helps bring history to life.”