My grandfather, Charles M. Neal, wrote to me -- the only male among his descendants who could carry on the family name of Neal -- to say he was starting to research the Neal family. I was 15 years old at the time. Three weeks after he sent me some of his preliminary findings, he suddenly died and the fragmentary information he had gathered was passed along to me.
My grandfather had said in his letter that the work he had begun would not mean much to me at the time (I was just a teenager, after all) but that when I became my father's age it probably would interest me more. He was right, but I carefully saved what he had sent and went on with being a teenager. I subsequently went on to college, where I studied history, and eventually I received a Ph.D. and taught history at the college level.
Later in my career, during the early 1990s, I took a position at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. As it happened, my office was near the microfilm reading room, and one day at lunchtime I decided to see if I could find my parents on the 1920 census, which had just been opened for research. It's a familiar story: one look at the census sheets and I was hooked.
So I dug out my grandfather's materials and re-read them. Coming across his comment that what he had begun might interest me more when I was my father's age, I did a quick calculation: I was exactly the age then that my father had been in 1956, when my grandfather had made that prophetic statement.
Thus my involvement in familiy history almost seems to have been preordained by both genes and my training as an historian. That training also influenced the kind of family history that I would pursue: from the outset compiling lists of names, though certainly valuable, did not interest me as much as placing my ancestors in their historical setting -- insofar as I could determine that.
My mother having recently died, I decided to begin with some information she had related to me during one of our last conversations. The notes I had hastily scribbled out in the car after sitting and listening by her bedside proved to be invaluable in identifying her lineage, although in time I would have great difficulty pushing my knowledge much further back than what she told me. But I was off to a good start and had twenty or so pages profiling what was known about her roots.
I then turned to the Neal lines. I found in my grandfather's papers a sheet with the family names of several women who had married Neals, and with these clues I went to work. I was surprised by how much I could learn, and the more I learned the greater the challenge became. Exploring and writing up my family history soon became a major focus of my life, and it has taught me a great deal.
The bulk of my text (now nearing 800 pages) is concerned with the Neal half of my heritage, although I have at least taken the Habicht half of that heritage back a couple of generations. I think my grandfather would be gratified to know that the seed he planted has grown as it has. I only wish that my parents had had the opportunity to learn what I have learned.
Over the years, I have dug away at the exposed faces of these two seams of family history until I now have probably 90% or more of what can reasonably be expected to be known about my parents and their family lines. Nevertheless, I am eager to gather other factual information, clues, and insights. I am also eager to correspond with others researching these families. Certainly the existence of the internet -- and now the resource that Footnote.com promises to become -- will help in continuing my efforts.
I will now mention the major families I have studied in the hopes that anyone reading this who is also studying those families will read my text (www.donnneal.com) and contact me so we can share information and research. As time permits, I will expand this list with short profiles of each family.
Vanderpool, Riggs, Zink (Zinck, Sink), Hughbanks (Ewbanks), Power, Ring, Funkhouser, Rickabaugh, Crooks (Krug), Flores, Griffith, Lionberger, Chastain, de Hooges, Post, Bradt, Verplanck, Vigne, Stark, Vineyard, Laycock, Lamb, Shore, Wells, Staton, Soblet, Shake, Davis, Blevins, Taylor, Cowden, Trimble, McCammon
Alferink (Alfrank), Weir, Guth, Schalach