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'A history lesson': Family genealogy gives searchers sense of self, roots

Former Geneva School District 304 board member Matt Henry is a descendant of the patriot Patrick Henry on his father's side. On his mother's side, his family also is related to Gov. William Bradford.
Former Geneva School District 304 board member Matt Henry is a descendant of the patriot Patrick Henry on his father's side. On his mother's side, his family also is related to Gov. William Bradford.

When Geneva School District 304 voters chose candidate Matt Henry for the school board in 2009, it’s possible that none of them thought there was anything special about his last name.

But there is something special: Matt Henry is a direct descendant – 12 generations removed – of patriot Patrick Henry, whose “liberty or death” speech March 23, 1775 at the Second Virginia Convention urged the colonists to raise a militia against the British.

He said the research started with his great-uncle, who studied the Henry family genealogy starting in 1761 – when John Henry I, cousin to Patrick Henry – was born in Virginia.

“More than anything else, it gives you a real sense of belonging,” Henry said, of knowing his family’s genealogy. “It’s really like a history lesson.”

Tracing one’s genealogy is, in fact, a history lesson, said Susan Lye, president of the Kane County Genealogical Society. The group, which serves the entire county, has been helping people in their searches for 38 years.

“It puts you in an understanding of worldwide historical events,” Lye said. “When you study your family history, you not only learn about an individual, you learn about the history of the time, the law, the religion, the culture, what was happening, the current events. You can put structure around why the family did what they did.”

Many people search genealogy for medical history, looking for predispositions to diseases or conditions, Lye said. But either way, the information gleaned provides a well-rounded view of the world, Lye said.

“You can relate to world events and world cultures and get a better understanding of how the world works,” she said.

Henry would agree that knowledge of the family connection over generations continues its impact and gives a particular perspective to his view of the world.

“John Henry I entered into the Virginia militia at 16 and fought under Maj. Gen. Alexander Hamilton – whose picture is on the $10 bill,” Henry said. “He was in the battle of King’s Mountain, South Carolina. ... That was the point that turned the Revolutionary War.”

Further tracing the Henry lineage, research showed that they are Scotch-Irish – Scottish by nationality, Irish by geography – sent by James I of England as Orangemen to Ulster to stand against the Irish Catholics.

They were not only Protestant, they were Calvinists in their theology, Henry said, quoting from his great-uncle’s research: “Indoctrinated by ... John Knox, who said to Queen Mary of Scotland, the mother of James I, ‘If princes exceed their bounds, they may be resisted by force.’ ”

“That is revolutionary thought. That is the lineage where Patrick Henry and those Virginia men formed the House of Burgesses,” Henry said, referring to the first elected representatives in 1619. “ ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ – it is almost in his fiber and in his blood hundreds of years in the making.”

• • •

Betsy Jagiello of Geneva said she has been to Ireland twice seeking her heritage.

“It was kind of nice to go and see where the family comes from and do a little genealogy, see what our roots are,” Jagiello said. “We got records back to the 1520s on my father’s side. Through doing that, I met cousins in Ireland that I talk to all the time.”

Her father’s people came to the U.S. in the 1880s.

“We had very little history on my mother’s side,” she said. “We did not know anything about her ancestors.”

Jagiello teamed up with her sister who began researching through the Daughters of the American Revolution in Georgia, where she had moved. 

“And then I watched, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ on television,” Jagiello said.  “And I really got hooked.”

Similar to the history that Henry’s uncle uncovered, Jagiello found that her mother’s ancestors also were Scotch-Irish. Eventually, Jagiello found about eight family members of the Scotch-Irish who served in the Revolutionary War.

“Mom lived to be 92 but felt she had no background she could pinpoint,” Jagiello said. “We could show her what here roots were in colonial times. It gave her a sense of place in history.”

Then came a posting on Ancestry.Com’s www.rootsweb from someone on her father’s side, looking for the family group that went from Ireland to Evanston.

“It turned out it was my grandfather we were both researching,” Jagiello said. “We had the same great-great-great-grandfather on his dad’s side, his paternal grandmother’s side. He sent me photographs from a vacation in Florida, and it was so strange to see familiar faces on strange people.”

Jagiello said she likes knowing the family’s story.

“It’s your place in history, where your roots came from,” Jagiello said. “I had ancestors who traveled over on the boats. It makes you feel you are from good, strong stock. You have some substance to you.”

Know more about genealogy:

• Kane County Genealogical Society -

• Elgin Genealogical Society -

• Fox Valley Genealogical Society -

• Newberry Library -

If you go:

The Kane County Genealogical Society will meet 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Geneva History Center, 113 S. Third St., Geneva for a program “Got Illinois Ancestors? A Guide to Prairie State Genealogy” webinar presentation by speaker Thomas MacEntee.

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