St. Croix resident Veronica Phillips experienced a bittersweet moment when, after years of tracing her family’s genealogy, she began finding family members in slave rosters.
“I traced my family back to the year 1846, and that was the day it hit me — my family members were slaves,” Phillips told St. John Historical Society members at the group’s Tuesday evening, December 12, meeting.
“That was the day slavery became a reality to me. My family was listed as property, along with their behavior — whether they were good, moral, capable of good work and their price.”
Researching Out of Curiosity
Phillips, who founded the Ancestry Discovery Group in 2001, was the guest speaker at the St. John Historical Society’s December meeting. She spent 13 years researching her own family history, and was able to go back six generations on St. Croix.
People often research their genealogy because they are curious about what their ancestors were like, according to Phillips.
“Use your imagination and think of yourself as an orphan,” she said. “You might wonder if you look like your mother or your father, or what kind of neighborhood your parents grew up in. Maybe you like to draw, and you wonder who in the family was artistic.”
“In the larger spectrum of things, that’s why people do genealogy,” Phillips continued. “You carry the genes of your first ancestors, living in you. We do it because we are curious as to who those people are.”
Discovering Relation to “Cousins”
Phillips, whose grandparents moved to the states from St. Croix in 1921, decided to trace her own genealogy, she explained, after realizing that even her parents did not know how she was related to her many “cousins.”
“I wanted to know how was I connected to all these people,” said Phillips. “How are they my cousins? I started with my grandparents and my aunts, and that’s where the trip started.”
Phillips began her search by investigating church records, and records from Ellis Island, where more than 12 million immigrants entered the United States.
“When I got to the Ellis Island records, I found names that were spelled wrong,” said Phillips. “You could imagine how many different spellings you have to play with.”
Census Records, Police Reports
Phillips then looked to census records, which proved difficult because, in the Virgin Islands, they are organized by estate rather than name.
“With the census records, there is no index,” said Phillips. “You have to search through each estate.”
It was at this point that Phillips stumbled upon the names of her ancestors listed as slaves.
“Real people went through slavery, and real people were considered property,” said Phillips. “Genealogy was not important here — what they could do physically was important.”
Police reports were also helpful during Phillips’ search, she explained.
“Police reports were helpful, because when the slaves were freed, they really wanted to track where everyone was going,” said Phillips. “You needed a pass to go from island to island.”
Loving History Through Genealogy
Learning about her ancestors was important, said Phillips, because she realized that without them, she would not be here today.
“If anything happened to one of them, we would not be here today,” said Phillips. “They paid a price. To me, that’s why genealogy is so important — it taught me to love history, which I didn’t like before.”
After 13 years of tracing her family history, Phillips came to a startling conclusion — she still did not know how she was related to her “cousins,” she explained.
“I went five generations back, and I still don’t know how we’re related,” said Phillips. “I realized that family is where you get your values. Your history is very important.”
Phillips urged the group not to discount those crazy-sounding stories told often by older relatives.
Preserve Family History
“Do not discount oral history,” she said. “You can’t always connect to your ancestors through records.”
In the end, Phillips discovered she has 1,049 living relatives, 77 of whom went on a cruise together.
“We had a ball,” said Phillips.
The Ancestry Discovery Group, which meets regularly on St. Croix, was formed to provide support to those researching their genealogy, according to Phillips.
“We formed to support one another while doing our family histories, and to celebrate our successes,” she said.
Phillips stressed the importance of preserving family history.
“Whatever little bit you know about your family, preserve it, whether it’s pictures, stories, traditions or oral history,” she said. “There needs to be documentation, or else it will be lost.”