The fact that a convicted murderer is in the family isn’t exactly what Langley residents Graham and Jackie Johnson hoped to discover when they began researching a bit of family history.
Yet, that’s just what they found.
Jackie’s great-great grandmother, Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh, is “very famous” in Fulton County, New York, for being the only woman hanged for murder in the state. Adding to her notoriety was that the 34-year-old mother of two was executed in 1846 while sitting in her rocking chair, due to being obese and having suffered a broken leg from falling through a barn floor while hiding from authorities.
The Johnsons had been on a quest to find Jackie Johnson’s great-grandfather’s parents, to “fill the gap in her family history,” according to Graham Johnson. Although the Johnson’s son had uncovered some family history books, little was noted about the children’s mother and father — the record said simply that they were orphaned at a young age. It failed to note that their mother had confessed that she had poisoned their father and her previous husband with arsenic and killed them.
The Johnsons finally uncovered the unique bit of family history on a trip to New England.
“The look on her face was worth the trip,” Graham Johnson said with a laugh, recalling the moment his late wife read the criminal record of her great-great-grandmother. “She loved to tell the story,” he said.
Mary Sue Kriefall, president of the Genealogical Society of South Whidbey Island , said that society members like Graham Johnson often uncover genealogical facts they never would have surmised from handed-down family trees, although, she noted, the Johnsons have been the only members to date to uncover a historical skeleton in the closet.
The society’s objective, according to Kriefall, is education and exploration of genealogy both within the United States and internationally. Its programs, which are free and open to the public, incorporate discussions and talks from genealogy experts.
When Kriefall began researching her own heritage, her mother was still alive to advise Kriefall as she went about constructing her own family tree. After listing her cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents, Kriefall said she thought she was done. However, she said, she realized she was far from finished. There were facts to check and details to uncover.
She explained that, for her, finding basic names and dates was not the most interesting part. It was discovering the culture and lifestyles of her ancestors that prompted Kriefall to keep looking.
“It becomes fascinating to put yourself in your ancestor’s shoes,” she said, explaining that for her all-German ancestors, it must have been “quite a [culture] shock” coming from Germany to America as early as the 1600s.
Not all information is available online, explained Kriefall, citing the fact that prior to the Internet era, facts and family trees were copied down in books or duplicated from one family member’s rendition of the family tree to another.
“You can’t just take information from someone else’s family tree,” Kriefall explained. “You pretty much have to check it out yourself if you don’t want to go down the wrong branch. …Genealogy is a lot of detective work,” said Kriefall. “It’s what makes it work but it’s also what makes it fun because when you get a little kernel that supports your theory or sends you down the right path then you feel like you’ve really accomplished something.”
Due in part to widespread illiteracy, official records can also contain errors, something Kriefall came to recognize when she obtained her grandmother Christina’s birth certificate which listed Christina as Christian, a male child. Although Kriefall and her mother were able to have the record amended after verifying Christina’s information with a marriage certificate and her mother’s recollection, Kriefall said this type of mistake is common. Death certificates can be particularly inaccurate, she added.
“Many official records contain errors so using a single source is not enough,” she said.
In addition to historical facts, family secrets and cultural knowledge, Kriefall said the exploration of ancestry can lend a better understanding of what makes individuals who they are in terms of personality and features.
“I think there is a lot of nature that gets passed down, personally,” she said. “And I think that’s why America is so can-do. Our ancestors had to be can-do in order to get over here.”
According to Graham Johnson, the help he received from the society members allowed him to discover his own family heritage in Sweden and lent him a better understanding of himself in the process.
“To find out who you are today you really need to reflect back on your ancestors, those who preceded you,” he said, explaining that he can now trace his values and traits back to the farm of his ancestors in Sweden, and the church at which they were married nearly 400 years ago.
Meetings of the Genealogical Society of South Whidbey Island take place at 1 p.m. on the second Monday of the month from September through June at the Trinity Lutheran Church Community Building.
The society is composed of approximately 100 computer literate members from Clinton to Oak Harbor whose levels of expertise range from beginning to advanced. Membership is $15 a year which pays for the society’s overhead costs and affords privileges such as subscription to the society newsletter and access to one of the interest groups: Legacy Software, Reunion Software, German Research, New York and New England Research and a Writers Group.
To learn more about the society, genealogy and membership, visit www.gsswi.org.