Out on a Limb: Web and Wanderlust

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Capt. Edward Nelson

Hanover County, Va.

Early 18th century

Dear Capt. Nelson:

If my recent genealogical research is right, you’re my sixth-great-grandfather. So I thought I should drop you a line and let you know how things have turned out since your day, back in the early 1700s.

I guess I should start with your family. After a few generations in Virginia, where you’d settled in about 1718, your descendants caught the same wanderlust that you had–I guess it runs in the family. (One family history says about you: “Edward Nelson, son of James Nelson, of Essex, near London, England, was born 1690. His parents dying while he was young, he was cared for by an uncle, who had among his acquaintances a sea captain. The pictures of adventure so dazzled the imagination of Edward that when he was only 14 years old he ran away from home to sail with this captain. He followed the sea for 14 years, becoming captain of a vessel.” I found all that using something called the World Wide Web–it’s complicated to explain since you’ve never seen a computer. Anyway, we pick 101 of the best new sites on the Web in this issue’s cover story.

Your grandson, George Clough Jr., left Virginia not long after the Revolutionary War (another complicated topic–just bear with me here, Captain) and made his way first to Georgia, then to Alabama, which was pretty much just wilderness and Indian territory in your time. There his granddaughter married into another branch of my family, which had made its own way from North Carolina with a detour in South Carolina.

That pattern of migration southward and westward, it turns out, was common for a lot of families in the South. I write about it, in fact, in an article in this issue that explains how to get started tracing your Southern roots.

I’ll confess, though, that your descendants left a pretty confusing trail at times in the years between you and me. I often had to pull out maps or get them on my computer (that word again–sorry) to figure out just where the heck “Speers District, Georgia” was, for example. Fortunately, I had a sneak peek at the story in this issue, where contributing editor Nancy Hendrickson lists seven essential map resources.

We’re going to try to leave a more complete record for our own descendants, though of course we have a few tools at our disposal that you didn’t enjoy back in the 18th century. Last weekend, my wife spent several hours scanning old family photos, which she’s then going to burn onto a CD-ROM… uh-oh, I’ve lost you again, haven’t I, Captain? Photos, scanning, CD-ROM… well, it’s all explained in the article “Memory Insurance.”

Let’s just say you’d be amazed at the developments since your day. We’ve made plenty of mistakes over the years (remind me to tell you about the trouble caused by that tobacco stuff you Virginians got us hooked on) and there’ve been some mighty rough spots. But we’ve also had some pretty dazzling adventures ourselves, experiences that would stack up to your Atlantic voyages. I could tell you all about the time a man walked on the moon, for instance-but that’s another letter, for another magazine.

For now I’ll just say thanks–for coming over here in the first place, and for leaving a legacy for me to discover.

Your sixth-great-grandson,

David A. Fryxell

From the August 2001 issue of Family Tree Magazine