As we continue into North Carolina, William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) begins a quest to find information on family history, specifically his namesake William Trogdon, a patriot during the Revolutionary War. We'll go along with him, and I'll look at more of my own search for my family history. We'll also touch on Chapel Hill and its attractions. Click on the map to see how far we've come! Comments from readers are always welcome!
"As soon as I could, I took state 54 to Chapel Hill, a town of trees..."
Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 1
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
The name of Chapel Hill draws up memories for me of watching March Madness college basketball when I was younger. Every year, it seemed, the University of North Carolina was the team to beat and was in the Final Four. I would agonize in the days before the shot clock when they got ahead and then put into practice their Four Corners offense, in which they would simply pass the ball around the corners and not take a shot for minutes at a time until the clock ran down. They were the team I hated to see win. Nowadays, they still field good teams, but my sports hatred in college basketball has switched to Duke, just down the road.
LHM simply stops in Chapel Hill to find a library to find information on his ancestor. He describes it as a city of trees, but otherwise does not spend much time there to find out what the city is like or about. In my search for information on my grandfather, which I started writing about in my last post, I did something similar. While driving on a business trip from Milwaukee to the East Coast, I made a detour down to Akron, Ohio to see if I could find any information. I remember it was a dark, rainy day as I found the main public library. I went to Akron because my grandfather's death certificate said that he was born in Akron, so I tried to look up a birth record. Unfortunately, I coudn't find one, and later learned that birth records were somewhat sketchy in the era in which my grandfather was born. If a birth was in a hospital, there was a better chance of finding a birth record. But if it was at home, there was practically no chance of tracking one down. I also learned during this time how difficult it was (this was just before the Internet became really popular), to use census records. They weren't indexed, just "soundex"ed. In other words, you could find people whose last names began with "h" but they weren't alphabetized.
LHM was looking for information even earlier than I. The internet was really a future dream at the time. At least he was looking for someone who was considered a patriot. If you try to find ordinary people, the run of the mill person who didn't really make a name for him or herself, the opportunities to find information about them were very limited.
Now, genealogical databases are everywhere on the internet, and some are enormous. The biggest one on the internet is Ancestry.com, which has ties with the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints. For a subscription, or even for free, you can find information on individuals past and present that past genealogists could only dream about.
I often wonder, now that everything is being digitized, stored on drives and discs, and fully accessible through databases, if anonymity is a thing of the past. I can look up information about pretty much anyone I want. Unless they are completely "off the grid," something will turn up. Sometimes it is helpful information, sometimes embarrassing. Totally by accident, for instance, as I was doing some research on Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) for my job on the internet, I happened across an arrest report of a person I know. Should I have known about it? The fact is that I might have never have learned about it if the internet didn't exist. In some ways, knowing about the arrest puts the person in a different light for me and brought out an internal response of concern, but my awareness of the situation may be embarrassing to that person.
I'm not sure if access to so much information is a good thing. I know that when I need such information, it is helpful to have it. When I don't want the information, or I don't want people knowing mine, it is frightening to know that someone could get information that is embarrassing or inimical to my interests. But I bet if William Least Heat-Moon had access to such information when he made his Blue Highways trip and stopped at a library in North Carolina town he called a city of trees, he would have probably had an easier time finding information on William Trogdon.
If you want to know more about Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill and Orange County Visitors Bureau
Chapel Hill Magazine Blog
Chapel Hill News and Advocate (newspaper)
Chapel Hill Watch (blog)
Independent Weekly (alternative weekly of Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill)
Town of Chapel Hill
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Wikipedia: Chapel Hill
Next up: Ramseur, North Carolina