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The Stories Of Our Lives

Genealogy research can be an addictive hobby, and the availability of DNA kits is expanding the possibilities

Marilyn Case, current president of the Indian River Genealogical Society, looks through a vintage stereo photo viewer of pineapples being harvested circa 1904.

Marilyn Case, current president of the Indian River Genealogical Society, looks through a vintage stereo photo viewer of pineapples being harvested circa 1904.

Given the choice, would you travel back in time or view the future? The billion-dollar genealogy industry, now the second-most searched subject on the internet, points to a growing obsession with uncovering one’s distant past. In 2017, MIT Technology Review reported that 12 million people bought genetic testing kits, doubling 2016’s number.

For Vero Beach residents, tracing one’s historical lineage can reveal stories that are meant to be told and retold for many generations to come. “My people were real adventurers,” says Angela Meyers. Her 11th great-grandfather on her father’s side, Christopher Newport, was a privateer for King James I of England. “He was essentially a legal pirate for the crown,” she explains. “As long as he did not attack English ships or those of the allies, he was free to plunder all he could and bring it back to the king.” Newport was born in the Limehouse district of London in 1561. During the Anglo–Spanish War, he raided Spanish freighters in and around the Caribbean Sea as captain of the ships Little John, Margaret and Golden Dragon. The dashing captain lost part of his right arm on an expedition financed by the wealthy London merchant John Watts during the capture of a Spanish galleon, but continued his high-risk, high-reward line of work for the next 20 years with a hook for a hand. In August 1592, he captured the Portuguese ship Madre de Deus in the Battle of Flores off the Azores, taking 500 tons of spices, silks, gemstones and gold — the greatest English plunder of the century. In addition to the loot, King James I, who was known to appreciate exotic animals, received a gift of two baby crocodiles and a wild boar that made the voyage back with Newport and his crew. In 1607, Newport brought 71 male colonists, including John Smith, to the New World aboard the Susan Constant and then sailed up the James River looking for a settlement location.

Two main factors are responsible for the increased interest in genealogy research: advertising for internet sites such as Ancestry.com and television shows such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Finding Your Roots.” “People want to know, ‘Where did I come from?’” says Debbie Garber, past president of the Indian River Genealogical Society. “It’s a basic human interest. One of the big benefits of belonging to our genealogical society is the support you receive; you are not alone with your computer.” Garber points me to the Archive Center and Genealogy Department at the Indian River County Main Library. Genealogy librarian Michelle Wagner and volunteers guide those looking for information through their free online databases and thousands of books. “If you think you have exhausted all methods, we can show you creative places to look,” Garber adds. “It’s not just about getting names, dates and places. It’s learning the stories of our ancestors.”