It's time to meet another one of our wonderful WikiTreers. This week's member is Barry Smith.
Barry became a Wiki Genealogist in May of 2017. He is our newest Project Leader and will be co-leading our New Netherland Settlers Project as well as stepping up to lead the Switzerland Project.
What are some of the surnames you are researching?
Thurber, Stanger, Vanmeter, Jackson, Duncan, and Kummer on my mother’s side. My father’s side has proved more difficult. He is also an active WikiTreer, and we have been working to try to determine the origins of our Smith line, working with autosomal and Y-DNA. The latter indicates our patrilineal line goes back to Finland as recently as the Middle Ages.
What are some of the locations you are researching?
Switzerland, Kincardineshire in Scotland, County Tyrone in Ireland, and early Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey. I enjoy immensely learning the distinctions and nuances of culture and history that affect how genealogical research is performed in these varied locations.
When and how did you get interested in genealogy and family history?
As a child in the 1980s, through my mother’s father, who loved archiving the family history, corresponding with cousins, and sharing with the rest of us. He would pull out typed versions of our family tree at Thanksgiving. Ten-year-old me couldn’t believe that he could trace his Swiss mother’s line back to the 1600s! I was very interested, but he died when I was in high school and my dabbling in research would ebb and flow as I got older. I didn’t get hooked, and I didn’t get really serious about research, until I joined WikiTree in 2017.
Who's your favorite ancestor and why?
One of my favorites is my great-great-grandmother Alice Van Meter. The family lore said she was orphaned as a child and raised by her aunt. She married, had a son, and seemingly separated from her husband a few years later. Then she took her toddler son and headed far to the west to Montana, where she married her second cousin William Newkirk, who had come out a few years earlier seeking adventure and opportunity. William and Alice had five daughters, including my great-grandmother, and several of Alice’s children and grandchildren had incredible life stories.
I admire her perseverance through a difficult childhood and then, as a young mother without a husband, yet not a widow, so unusual for that time, trying to survive and provide for her son. I try to imagine boarding the train in New Jersey with just her son, heading to the undeveloped frontier. Somehow, she thrived and was able to give her children and grandchildren enough so they could become quite accomplished, including an inventor, champion swimmers, a daughter who won what was perhaps the first bodybuilding competition at the Physical Culture Exhibition of 1903, and a granddaughter who obtained a mathematics degree from UCLA during the Depression at just nineteen years old.
She was also my closest-in family mystery. Before I got serious about genealogy, the little time I did put to dabbling in the family tree was often spent trying to identify her father. Solving that mystery has been fun: for instance, it turns out she was neither a full orphan nor an only child. Her mother was alive in the 1860 census, living with Alice’s older sister, and Alice had been sent to live separately with an aunt.
Tell us about a brick wall you were able to break down.
Alice’s father, John. All we knew was his name and rough location. DNA has now identified him. Because he was the only brick-wall I had thought about in the years prior to joining WikiTree, he is also the brick-wall that has taken me longest to solve. I created a big spreadsheet of every genetic match to my mother with a Van Meter in their tree, and sorting by closeness of the match, there was already a clear pattern. The closest matches were descendants of Alice, but the next closest were descended from John Vanmeter born 1792! The next closest to John’s father Joseph 1755, and the next closest to Joseph’s father Joseph b. 1722. Several matches stuck out as sharing too much DNA for their distant connection, and in several of those cases I was able to identify errors in their trees, sourced with land and probate records. Once they were fixed, the spreadsheet showed an even stronger pattern. John had a posthumous daughter “Margaret” born the same year as Alice, which explains the orphan story. He was 64 years old when she was born, and lived most of his life in Pennsylvania, not New Jersey, so I think other researchers simply hadn’t tried looking for him in that place and time. That spreadsheet has since helped break a collateral brick-wall, through a woman with previously unknown maiden name. This project has made several cousins very happy!
(interview continues in comments)