Barry Ewell: A local historian helped me discover ancestral details in Virginia

By Barry Ewell

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Sept. 21 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

At my ancestor Maxcey Ewell's gravesite with Kevin Collings, Phil James, Salley James and Valene Collings. The Jameses are local historians who helped us find the gravesite.

Barry Ewell

I've learned by personal experience that without the help of local experts, I am only marginally successful in understanding and researching local and regional resources.

I was in Virginia with other family genealogists. From previous research we had done, we knew the address of land that was once owned by my progenitor Maxcey Ewell, who had moved there with his father-in-law, John Mullins, and some friends with the surname Maupin. With the help of the rental car's GPS, we were guided to a dirt-road turnoff. Now what? There wasn't an address to be found anywhere.

As I proceeded up this dirt road, I crossed the path of a gray SUV. I waved the driver down, gave him our directions, and asked if he could help us. He told me he knew who could help us — Phil and Salley James, the local historians. All I had to do was find their home. The SUV driver gave us directions to go up the road about a mile, turn left at the oak tree, turn right at the third fence post, and then cross the stream; Phil and Salley's home would be on the right.

As I pulled up to the home, I saw a man who I guessed was Phil in the front yard. I started the conversation with, "I understand you are the local historian?"

"Yes, who are you looking for?

"Maxcey Ewell."

He crossed his arms and thought for a moment, then replied, "I know exactly where it's at. Would you like me to show you?"

"Absolutely, that would be wonderful," was my immediate reply.

Phil raised his hand and told us that he would be a few minutes. He returned with an industrial-strength weed trimmer and explained that there were graves on the Maxcey Ewell property that dated to the late 1700s. Within five minutes, we found the land, opened the gate, and drove onto the property. As Phil pulled the weed trimmer from the trunk of the car, he motioned to the rest of us to follow him up the hill. Climbing the hill, Phil explained that it was common for families to create a family burial plot on a hill that overlooked the homestead.

We followed Phil to a group of trees with knee-high grass that was cut to size in minutes. When the grass was cleared, we found three rows of fieldstones that were turned up on end. Phil pointed to the gravestones and said, "Ewell, say hello to the plot of the Maxcey and Ann Ewell family."

I was overwhelmed to think that I was standing on the very land my progenitor owned. We had found the gravesite of Maxcey and Ann Ewell. While we were on the hill, Phil also showed us a grave marker of John Mullins and his family. The graves were no more than 150 yards apart.

The night was now coming upon us quickly. We retired to the home of Phil and Salley, where we spent the evening talking about our families and the history of Whitehall. As we spoke, we found out that Phil was a descendent of the Maupin family, who were close friends of the Ewells and Mullins.

Just as we were about to leave, Phil asked us to wait while he went downstairs. He returned with five family history books that contained the genealogies, printed in the early 1900s, of the Ewells, Mullins, Maupins and allied families. He had gathered the books from the Charlottesville public libraries when they were being sold as excess books over the years.

I was allowed to take the books back to the hotel, where I spend the entire night photographing their pages. We returned the books the next morning, and Phil invited us into his home. He had taken the opportunity the night before to do some more research among his collection and found several more helpful books, of which I took more photographs.

We shared our gratitude for the gift that Phil and Salley gave our family — finding the Ewell/Mullins homestead, burial plots and family histories, as well as the friendship we had forged with Phil and Salley.

Barry J. Ewell is author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips and Tricks for Discovering your Family History" and founder of MyGenShare.com, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.

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