Thursday, November 14, 2013

Those Places Thursday: Toms Creek, Wise County, Virginia

The below photo is a shot of my great-great aunt Dolly Reed Harris, taken in the early 1920's. She was a sister to my great-grandmother, Bonnie Reed Penn.

Dolly Reed, Toms Creek Virginia, circa 1925

The photo was taken at Toms Creek in Wise County, Virginia. Toms Creek was and still is a coal town. Most of the male members of my family were employed in the coal mines here, whether they were coke pullers or in the mines themselves.

Wise County is currently experiencing a bit of excitement! Adriana Trigiani's book Big Stone Gap is being made into a movie and Hollywood has descended upon the small town from which the book got its name. Big Stone Gap is about 20 miles southwest of Toms Creek. Check out the movie Facebook page!

I have been laughing a bit at some of the comments on the page. Many of the native Wise Countians are very concerned that the actors in the movie get the accent right. They don't want Hollywood coming in and doing the "Georgia/Alabama" drawl, because that is not how Southwest Virginians talk! It will be interesting to see if the actors take that to heart!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Wedding Wednesday: Behind the Scenes

Sometimes, the best wedding day pictures are the ones that are taken of the parents of the bride or groom. This picture is of my great grandparents, Bruce Daniel Penn and Bonnie Reed Penn, taken in 1951 before their daughter's wedding. To me, this shot is unlike the posed photos that are so common on wedding days. These two had been married for 20 years at the time of this photo and I think it is adorable that there is still an obvious love between them.

Friday, October 11, 2013

About Genealogy Roadshow and WDYTYA

I read this blog post by D. Joshua Taylor this morning and nodded my head in understanding the entire way through. Personally, I totally relate to his feeling like a 12 year old in room full of people who do not understand him when it comes to genealogy. I also appreciate his comments about the recent genealogy television shows.

I am tired of all of the naysayers regarding Who Do You Think You Are? and Genealogy Roadshow. Obviously, it takes thousands of hours of research to come to genealogical conclusions. And yes, the results are shown in a matter of four or five minutes. But, isn't that true for presenting our findings to other family members or clients? They receive a report or book outlining their family tree, often times without having a true understanding of how much work went into the project. Most of us do not get insulted about that, so why be insulted by a television show that essentially shows the same thing happening?

It may seem to non-genealogists that these shows make genealogy look "too easy." My thought on that is this: those who are truly interested will start, realize how difficult it actually is, and if they find they love the hunt, will stick with it and embrace the work. If not, they go on to their next hobby. No harm, no foul. 

As for me, I will continue watching these shows on television and enjoy seeing the participants faces when hidden family secrets are revealed or confirmed. That's what genealogy is all about for me.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Thriller Thursday: Murder at the Poker Game - James Harvey Rector 1882-1934

My great-great granduncle, James Harvey Rector, was a bit of an outlaw. Born June 10, 1882 in Marshall, Madison, North Carolina, he was a younger brother of my great-great grandfather George H. Rector, also of Marshall, NC.

Harvey apparently had a bit of a temper problem, because on November 6, 1911, he shot and killed his neighbor Charley Davis over a game of poker. I believe that Charley Davis may have been a brother to George H. Rector's first wife Molly Davis, my great-great grandmother, but I have yet to solidly prove this. From Page 8 of the November 7, 1911 edition of the Charlotte Observer:

Harvey went on the lam. The great thing about history and genealogy is I caught up with him 24 years later in the death records of Welch, West Virginia, where he died of a gunshot wound to the chest in 1934. It turns out he had been going under the alias of John James since the poker shooting. From page 3 of the January 1, 1935 edition of the Bluefield Telegraph:

My thought when I read that article was “Well, I definitely know the reason for the alias!” Incredible!

In case you were wondering, Alma Phillips was cleared of all charges. 

©copyright Piper Oneto

Monday, September 30, 2013

Maritime Monday: Fortunato Oneto, Father of Paolo Oneto - Camogli, Italy

I am including this post in Maritime Monday because I have learned over the past few days that the Oneto family from Camogli, Italy has a long standing maritime tradition, something my husband was very pleased to learn. He has a need for the sea. (Go U.S. Navy). We learned last week that his great-great grandfather was also an Oneto sailor. Here’s how:

I had been stuck for EIGHT years on my husband’s great-grandfather Paolo Oneto. I had his marriage record, pulled from the Family Search site. He and Clara Aste were married in 1909 at St. Francis Church in Hoboken, NJ. His parents were listed as Fortunato Oneto and Maria Mortola. I knew from his World War I registration card that he was born in Camogli, Liguria, Italy on October 23, 1886. According to the U.S. census records, he was an instrument maker for Keuffel and Esser, a drafting instrument company, in Hoboken.

Beyond that, I did not know much more. Every few months I would do new searches of the New Jersey records, Family Search, Ancestry, you name it. I wrote to St. Francis, but so far, have not gotten a response.  My funds are limited, so I cannot just run up to New Jersey to dig around, let alone take a trip to Italy. I was starting to lose hope that I had truly reached the end of internet records for Paolo. It happens. Sometimes, you just have to go to the places to get further. I understood this, yet have a lack of monetary resources at the moment. I have to make do until I win the lottery.

Just last week, however, I noticed a set of undiscovered-yet-obviously-glaring-me-in-the-face records on Family Search. These were birth, marriage and death records for Camogli, Liguria Italy. These records are not indexed, but they cover most years from 1866-1910. I took a deep breath and dove in. 100 image views and a complete-overload use of Google Translator later, I found it.

Yes, that is the birth record of Paolo Oneto, born October 23, 1886 to Fortunato Francesco Oneto, sailor, and Maria Mortola. *Insert angelic music here* Yes, I shed a happy tear or two. Eight years is a long time to be in the dark. Not only did this record list Paolo’s parents, but also the fathers of Fortunato and Maria. *Faint*

What intrigues me about Fortunato’s father is that his name was Francesco Oneto. I am really hoping, though prepared to be disappointed, that our Oneto family is somehow related to the Francesco Oneto who commissioned this statute in honor of his family:

Wikipedia Image

Wikipedia Image

Beautiful, isn’t she? She guards the Oneto family tomb in the Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa. This particular Francesco Oneto was the President of the General Bank and apparently, a very wealthy man. The good news is that in my search I found that Fortunato and Maria had another son after Paolo and his name was Francesco Eduardo Oneto, born 1888 in Camogli, so there’s the Francesco name again. Here’s hoping.

In the meantime, I am going through every single image on these databases and pulling out every Oneto, Mortola, Aste and Avegno I can find. I am excited to make these connections and I am learning quite a bit of Italian in the process. Genealogy is a wonderful thing. 

©copyright Piper Oneto

Monday, September 23, 2013

Lena Rector Roberts Arnold 1909-2001

My Great-Grandmother Lena Rector ca. 1940
Lena Rector, our "Nana," was born June 13, 1909 in Marshall, Madison, North Carolina, daughter of George H. Rector and Mollie Davis. She married Roy Adolphus Roberts on June 25, 1925 in Marshall and had my grandfather Dudley George Roberts on November 21, 1928. Sometime between 1930 and 1940, the family moved to Washington D.C. and it was here that Nana left Roy. Nana was hard-pressed to talk about anything unpleasant from the past, but the story passed down to me was that Roy was an alcoholic and that was the cause of Nana leaving him. He died January 22, 1966 in Norwalk, CA.

Nana remarried Norman Arnold sometime after this and moved to Silver Spring, MD. They were the epitome of class and social graces in our world. They were both dressed impeccably at any given time in the day. I remember showing up unannounced to their home one day and Norman, "Nornie" as we called him, was dressed in suit and tie and Nana in her finest slacks and blouse. We were only allowed to touch things in one room of her home and those were the things in our toy box. Though Nornie was not our biological grandfather, there wasn't a single moment where we could tell he wasn't our blood. He loved us all to pieces.

Nana made the best macaroni and cheese on the planet and always had a roast or ham with plenty of vegetables to accompany it. We have all tried and failed to replicate her mac and cheese, although I have mastered a pretty close second. She always said I had "piano hands" and told me not to do anything without gloves. "When you wash dishes or work in the garden, you have to wear gloves or you will ruin those pretty little hands." She knew what she was talking about. I have her hands.

Nana passed away in June 2001 and I still miss her all the time. I can still hear her voice and it makes me smile. "You're gettin' prettier all the time!"

©copyright Piper Oneto

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

President Wilson? That Was AGES Ago!

I have been spending days knee-deep in the College of William and Mary digital archives website. I began looking for mentions of my great-great granduncle Herman Lee Harris, of which there are many! Associate editor of the school newspaper The Flat Hat, officer of the Philomathean Literary Society, officer of the German Club (not the language, apparently), part of the Literary Magazine and the Colonial Echo staff…. The list goes on and on.

The Flat Hat was first published in 1911, when H. Lee, as he is most often called in the records, was a sophomore. I began pouring over these back issues, focused only on finding mentions of him. As I read these articles, however, I realized that something much more than one person was happening here. The revelation hit me as I read a small blurb from the March 4, 1913 issue that read: “H. Lee Harris and C.W. Holler are attending the inauguration.” 

Knowing that H. Lee was a Woodrow Wilson supporter at the time (there was a Woodrow Wilson Club of which H. Lee was a member), my first instinct was “Oh, he went to Wilson’s inauguration… but no, Presidential inaugurations take place in January.” Just to be sure, I googled “President Wilson inauguration” and sure enough, it took place on March 4, 1913. In the same moment, I learned that the inauguration date was changed to January during Franklin Roosevelt’s 2nd term.

President Wilson's Swearing-in March 4, 1913

The magnitude of what I had just read hit me like a ton of bricks:  H. Lee had attended the Presidential inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. To me, a 30 year old, Wilson’s presidency might have been light years ago. But somehow, tying this inauguration and Presidency to H. Lee, with whom I have spent many hours researching and getting to know through the records, made the event seem closer. It also inspired me to find out more. What were the issues of the day that made H. Lee a Wilson supporter? I know from later records that H. Lee served as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy during World War I – did he support the war or perhaps serve simply out of duty to his country, as most of my Harris's are apt to do?

I came to the alarming realization that history and genealogy are not separate. I had a good few hours of kicking myself over not having paid more attention in school. How could I not know that Presidential inaugurations have not ALWAYS been in January? After some serious introspection, I realized that my education had to come on its own time and I should stop being so hard on myself. The context had to be there for me to understand and appreciate what came before. For this, I will be forever grateful to Dr. Herman Lee Harris for inspiring me to examine all aspects of our nation's history and beyond.

In the meantime, if you have ancestors who went to the College of William and Mary, check out their archives website – it is a treasure trove!

© copyright, Piper Oneto

Friday, September 13, 2013

My Mountain Home

This magical log home is the house my parents owned when I was born. It is to this place they brought me, after my mother and I were discharged from the hospital.

My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles built this house with their own hands.

The house is on a small mountain that boasts incredible views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, especially in the wintertime. My cousins lived next door and we played together every day, along with the other neighborhood kids. I lived here from the time I was born until I was nine, when my father sold the house. He had decided that we had outgrown it and we needed to move on.

The loss of this house is just as tangible to me now at 30 as it was at nine. No place is perfect, but for those nine years of my childhood, no one could have told me different. Maybe it was the magic of youth that made this mountain perfect, but I happen to believe it goes deeper than that.

My ancestors settled near Clinch Mountain, part of the Appalachian mountain range, in what is now Scott County, VA. The Carter Family told about this mountain range in their song, “My Clinch Mountain Home.” They also sang of “My Home Among the Hills” and the intense longing that existed to go back after an absence.

Clinch Mountain Range

My Southwest Virginia family loved the mountains and even when they journeyed away from them, it did not take long for them to go back. My great-grandfather moved his young family to Central Virginia in the late 1920’s. My older cousins have said that my great-grandmother always pined to return to her mountains and family in Scott County. Though life was hard, comfort lived in the valleys of those mountains, comfort that was not easy to come by in the flat, scrub pine of Fluvanna County, VA.

For me also, there is security in living near mountains. Tornadoes are rare, there is ample defense from tidal waves and I find the hills' constant reach for the sky inspiring. I revel in the views that exist from mountains. For brief moments, I am larger than life itself, whereas in the valleys, I am just an ant. As long as mountains are in my sight, I am content.

Learning about my ancestors affection for their mountain home has made me wonder if the feeling is genetic in some way. My pining for my childhood log home, high on a mountain, does not ebb as I get older. In fact, as time passes, the yearning gets worse. Could my family's thoughts, respect and love for the highlands of Southwest Virginia somehow have been passed down through the family DNA? Or, is it just the need to escape adulthood and retreat back to a simpler time? Maybe it is a bit of both.

©copyright, Piper Oneto

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Talented Tuesday: The Carter Family

For Talented Tuesday, I am highlighting my cousins, Sara Dougherty Carter and Maybelle Addington Carter of the singing group, The Carter Family from Scott County, Virginia.

My great-great grandmother, Anna Kilgore, was the sister of both Sara and Maybelle’s mothers, Nancy Kilgore and Margaret Kilgore. My great grandfather Robert E. Harris was a first cousin of Sara and Maybelle.

We are honored to have these talented people in our family and thank them for their enormous contribution to country music.

© copyright, Piper Oneto

Friday, August 30, 2013

Dr. Herman Lee Harris - Coeburn, Wise, Virginia

One of the best things about genealogy is finding those ancestors who were quite accomplished, of whom most of the family has no knowledge. Such is the case of Dr. Herman Lee Harris, son of my three-times great grandfather John D. Harris and his third wife Louisa B. Greer.

Resources available to me on Herman Lee’s vital records are limited at best. I am hoping that someone may have more information on this (to all outward appearances) remarkable man, who had a rather impressive run at the College of William and Mary.

Herman Lee Harris was born in Flatwoods, Wise County, Virginia in February 19, 1893 (1). In 1900, the family was living in Lipps, Wise, Virginia with two of Louisa’s sons from a previous marriage, Dayton and Hugh Baker (2). John D. Harris worked as a farmer and was recorded as “A.D. Harris” on the census.

In 1909, Herman Lee Harris, from Coeburn, VA appears at the prestigious College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. A search of Herman Lee on gave me the clues needed to locate a digital copy of the William and Mary yearbook, “The Colonial Echo.” His impressive list of accomplishments at the school is outlined in his senior page from 1915 below (3).

I adore the personal description of Herman Lee on this page. So rarely do we, as genealogists, get an insight into an ancestor’s personality of this kind. To see one’s ancestor described as an “Adonis" is classic!

At the time of this writing, my records for Herman Lee for the time period between 1918-1935 are incomplete. I found a World War I draft registration card from 1917 on that lists Herman Lee Harris from Coeburn, VA as having the occupation of navigation inspector with the Department of Commerce in Norfolk, VA. I have been unsuccessful in locating Herman Lee in the 1920 or 1930 census records.

What I do know is that by 1940, Herman Lee was the doctor of medicine at the Clinch Valley Hospital in Tazewell, Virginia, as evidenced in the 1940 US Census and Herman Lee’s World War II draft registration card(4).

I would love to find out more about this man. We know based on his World War II draft registration card that he did marry, but his wife is listed as Mrs. H.L. Harris. I would love to find out more on his experience as a navigation inspector, where he attended medical school and what was the history, if any, behind the Clinch Valley Hospital prior to his arrival.

(1). "U.S., World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942," digital image,, ( : Accessed 26 July 2013), Herman Lee Harris; citing .
(2). 1900 U.S. Census, Wise County, VA, population schedule, Lipps, enumeration district (ED) 126, page 73, household 254, A D Harris; digital image, ( : Accessed 23 April 2013).

(3). “Colonial Echo: The W&M Digital Archive.” Issue date 1915, volume 17. Accessed July 26, 2013 from
(4). 1940 US Census, Tazewell County, VA, population schedule, Richlands, enumeration district (ED) 93-17, page 21A, Herman Lee Harris; digital image, ( : Accessed 26 July 2013); NARA.

©2013 copyright, Piper Oneto

Thursday, August 29, 2013


You may be wondering about the title of my blog: What Do You Mean, We're Irish?

My great-grandfather, shown in the picture above, was half Italian. His father was born in Italy and his mother was born in Southwest Virginia. My great-grandfather was born in Southwest Virginia, as was my great-grandmother, who is also shown in the picture. We had been told all of our lives that, as far as my mom's side was concerned, we were Italian, no if's, and's or but's. My grandmother, my mother and my brother certainly had the tan skin and the dark hair that my great-grandfather had, so I didn't question it. In fact, I proclaimed it with pride whenever someone asked about my cultural background. "I'm Italian! Proud of it, too! I make a MEAN lasagna!"

I have been teased about my extraordinarily fair skin, complete with freckles and a light shade of red in my hair, for my entire life. I just figured that my paleness came from my dad's line, which was English/Scottish. Even so, I staunchly maintained that I was Italian, even though nothing in my complexion suggested that there was anything Italian about me. People often looked at me, with what I describe as the "Elvis lip confusion face" when I loudly proclaimed, "I'm Italian! Definitely not Irish in any way, shape or form!"

My husband is indeed half-Italian and our last name is proof of that pudding. Once we got married, I held onto that last name for dear life, because that solidified my Italian-ness! No mistake about being Italian now!

After my great-grandmother passed away in 2004, I quickly came to the realization that I knew next to nothing about her parents, where she grew up, etc. I panicked and jumped onto to determine if I could locate Grandma's parents. I was successful in finding her, her siblings and parents on the 1920 census. In doing this research, I was bitten by the genealogy bug we all know so well. This bite led me to research all branches of our family.

One thing led to another in my research and over a period of a year, I traced my southwest Virginia lines back to the early 1800's. Names such as Dougherty, Kilgore and Armstrong started showing up everywhere. What I eventually found out was that 99.9999999% of my family on both my mom and dad's side are Scotch-Irish.


I walked out of my office one day (sulking, more like it) after the realization hit that, yes, I am Irish. Hardcore Irish.

I looked at my husband and said, "You know, I think I'm only one thirty second Italian. I'm pretty much all Irish."

He looked at me with the "Elvis lip confusion face" and said, "You think?!"

So, while I do have a full blooded Italian great-great grandfather, he is only one of eleven other great-great grandfathers who are mostly Irish, Scottish or English.

Genealogy has a way of rocking us to the very core regarding our identities. All my life, I had identified myself as a true Italian, when in reality, I am, for the most part, all Irish. 

Having done tons of research on these ancestors of mine, I am now proud to say that I am Irish, as my progenitors were some pretty amazing people. My hope on this blog is to share what I have learned about my amazing family and help others who may be researching the same areas/surnames as me.

*Picture in the author's private collection: Bonnie Alverna Reed and Bruce Daniel Penn 1932

©2013 copyright, Piper Oneto