Two Gainesville researchers to host workshop on how to trace your ancestors
When Tatanya Peterson first called Karen Kirkman five years ago, neither one knew how soon their lives would become intertwined.
What started as a simple phone call to confirm the residency of Peterson’s early ancestors, blossomed into a partnership and friendship between the two women.
Kirkman is the president and historian of the Historic Haile Homestead, Inc., a nonprofit organization that operates guided tours and events about the slave-owning plantation of the Haile family. She’s part of a team of transcribers who make the text on marriage licenses, mortgages and handwritten deeds searchable online.
Peterson and Kirkman now hold community workshops across Gainesville to help residents trace their family lines. Their fourth workshop is scheduled for April 15 at Kanapaha Presbyterian Church from 1 to 3 p.m. It will be open and free to the public.
In the workshop, Peterson will share the journey of tracing her ancestry back to the 1800s. Kirkman will provide guests with information on how to use Alachua County’s Ancient Records and other free resources to trace their own lineage.
“The first thing you do is start with yourself,” Kirkman said.
She said people should talk with the elders of their family first because, oftentimes, history is passed down from one generation to another through word of mouth.
Peterson, a lung transplant clerical assistant at UF Health Shands Hospital, started researching her ancestry about 16 years ago when her father passed away.
Through her research, she discovered a link between her great-great-grandparents, Hampton and Grace Hathcock, and Haile Homestead.
“I’d seen them on several different copies of wills from South Carolina,” Peterson said.
The Hathcocks worked as slaves at the homestead, which was the home of both the Haile and Chesnut families. The Haile and Chestnut families moved from South Carolina to Florida taking their slaves with them. The wills Peterson found had only the first names of the Hathcocks, prompting her to connect with Kirkman to confirm their last names.
Kirkman said she found the Hathcocks in James Chesnut’s journal, which she received as a donation from his descendants.
Even though she said she believes the situation to be a fortunate coincidence, Kirkman invites people to learn how Peterson’s stroke of luck can happen to them too.
When Peterson began her own tracing, she said she did extensive research online.
“It’s a lot of reading,” Peterson said, adding that if people genuinely want to research their family, they must be diligent.
By the same token, she found the results extremely rewarding.
Peterson said the most gratifying memory of her research career was when she called Kirkman and was able to see the journal for herself.
“This is my family,” Peterson said. “It’s something I can see, I can feel, I can touch.”
After discovering her Hathcock family, Peterson’s research was honored in an exhibit at the Allen & Ethel Graham Visitors Center and Museum located on the homestead property.
In 2018, Peterson started tracing her other family line on her mother's side: the Welch family. Though Peterson said she had usually been the one connecting the dots within her family tree, it was her cousin, Mironda Monroe, who found and reached out to her.
Monroe was a fan of history and has always been on a quest to find her relatives.
“It helps me understand more about who I am and where my strengths come from,” Monroe said.
Looking back, Monroe said she was happy to discover they had a lot in common.
“She and I have an ongoing relationship now, so it’s wonderful.”
Peterson said her example of connecting with lost family is what she and Kirkman hope will inspire workshop attendees to do the same.
Kirkman said she wants to see more African Americans at the workshops so they can learn about their possible connection to Alachua County. For those who may be hesitant to confront the history of slavery in the county, Kirkman invites them to look at the homestead’s website and tour the plantation for themselves.
“There’s truth and then there’s reconciliation,” Kirkman said. “You can’t go through reconciliation and healing until you know the truth.”
Peterson shared a similar sentiment.
She encouraged anyone with questions about their lineage to seek their own answers.
“If any of your family members are alive,” Peterson said, “sit down, talk to them, find out everything that you can.”
Peterson said she is glad that her mother, Martha Lumpkins, is alive to see how far her research has come. Lumpkins recently turned 82 years old.
One day, Peterson and Lumpkins hope to visit South Carolina and see the lands where their ancestors were enslaved.
For now, Peterson and Kirkman say they will continue to prepare for workshops and events in the Gainesville community and help bring families together one tree at a time.