Reflecting on family’s past a ‘never-ending’ pasttime

Tracing ancestors focus of local genealogy club

Looking outside her kitchen window on the bluffs of Scenic Heights Road, Jacqueline Vannice is surrounded by her past.

In the distance is the old white building where, in 1949, she was born. Spread out on her kitchen table are pieces of family history that occurred long before she became the second child of Ethel and James Rodney Vannice Sr., who worked his way through the ranks from sailor to commander at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Old photos, keepsakes, albums, jewelry —the many clues collected of her past — going back nine generations.

“I started 30 years ago when there was no Internet. Most of the initial information was handed down to me and I went from there,” said Vannice.

“It’s like detective work.”

Calling it a passionate hobby, she’s traced her mother’s and father’s families back to their respective starts in England/Scotland and Holland. Documents are neatly kept in filing cabinets; blue folders for Robertson (mother’s side) and red for Vannice (father’s side.)

“The Dutch side I’ve traced back to 1651. That’s when they came over from Amsterdam and ended up in Flatbush, N.Y.”

Not only did Vannice learn she comes from a long line of Methodist ministers, she found out the ever-evolving spelling of her surname.

“The original family name is Goosens,” she said. “Then it became Van Nuys in 1651. Then, Van Nice and it changed again to Vannice.”

She’s an active member of the Whidbey Island Genealogical Searchers that meets monthly. It not only searches personal families, it also peers into Oak Harbor’s pioneering past.

“We have quite a bit of information as far back as the mid-1800’s including pictures and interviews with the descendents who now live in Oak Harbor,” Vannice said. “We’d love to share this with the community.”

Whidbey Island Genealogical Searchers (called WIGS) got its start back in 1994. There’s also the South Whidbey Genealogy Society, which meets in Freeland. Both are non-profit organizations with dues and various activities.

Currently, WIGS is considering publishing a booklet with sources and suggestions on how to get started researching family history. It also may offer a beginner’s class in the spring.

With about 50 members, the group is looking for new people to join them and find out the many personal — and relative — rewards of ‘knowing thyself.’

“Collecting cousins” is often the joke heard among this tree-branching bunch.

Janis Allison Keough and Bob Keough of Coupeville, are also active in WIG.

“I never met my dad’s father,” said Keough, who has uncovered facts he never knew as a boy growing up near Boston. “Turns out he was probably living 15 miles from us.”

His wife, whose maiden name is Allison, has traced her Scottish and German relatives using many online routes, including the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter- day Saints free website, familysearch.org, the popular commercial site, ancestry.com and findagrave.com (yes, it’s real.)

“For me, it’s a mystery and I love mysteries,” says Allison Keough. One question she says she always wondered about: “Why is my great grandfather’s brother missing? Why can’t anyone tell me what happened to him?”

Her familial wanderings started relatively young.

She recalled times listening to stories of the old days from her grandmother and others beginning at age eight. “I became the de facto family archivist.”

Indeed.

Keeping track on a software program, she’s gone back 400 years — and found 3,111 relatives.

“You’re never done looking,” she says.

Among the keepsakes of Jacqueline Vannice are touchstones of North American history.

The story behind a delicate necklace filled with tiny granules of gold is particularly poignant. Her grandmother’s uncle sent them to his nieces during his Klondike mining days. He tragically died getting home in 1918, along with all passengers and crew aboard the SS Princess Sophia, the Canadian ship that sunk after striking a reef near Juneau.

Debunking family lore — infamous or otherwise — comes from meticulously documenting connections and cousins. Much of the proof lies in the treasure trove of county records.

“There was a story that we were related to President McKinley through his mother, Nancy Allison McKinley,” Janis Allison Keough said.

Not true, she found out. “Still, that fiction gets perpetuated.”

Getting answers to your personal past usually leads to more questions.

Big questions.

“It’s good to know why we are here, why we are in the United States,” Vannice suggests. “You may not think about these things when you’re younger but in time, in your 30s or your 50s, you may ask yourself, ‘Where did I come from?’”

Relatively speaking, that is.

• Whidbey Island Genealogical Searchers is open to all. It meets in Oak Harbor monthly. Newsletter and searching assistance offered with $15 individual dues; $20 family dues. www.whidbeygensearchers.org/

Vintage photographs of her relatives line the hallway of the Oak Harbor home of Jacqueline Vannice, including this one of Emily Jane (Newey) Barnes from England. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

Vintage photographs of her relatives line the hallway of the Oak Harbor home of Jacqueline Vannice, including this one of Emily Jane (Newey) Barnes from England. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

Jacqueline Vannice sorts through photos and keepsakes she’s collected while tracing her family’s history back to the 17th century. Vannice is active in the Whidbey Island Genealogical Searchers which is seeking new members. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

Jacqueline Vannice sorts through photos and keepsakes she’s collected while tracing her family’s history back to the 17th century. Vannice is active in the Whidbey Island Genealogical Searchers which is seeking new members. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

Four generations on the paternal side of Jacqueline Vannice’s family from her father (the baby) to her great-great grandfather (right.) Photo provided

Four generations on the paternal side of Jacqueline Vannice’s family from her father (the baby) to her great-great grandfather (right.) Photo provided

Vannice’s grandfather, Scotsman Jack Robertson, left, worked as a sawyer in Skagit County where he built his first house. Photo provided

Vannice’s grandfather, Scotsman Jack Robertson, left, worked as a sawyer in Skagit County where he built his first house. Photo provided

Jacqueline Vannice is reflected in the sepia-toned photograph of her relative, Emily Jane (Newey) Barnes, born in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, England to a family of comb makers. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

Jacqueline Vannice is reflected in the sepia-toned photograph of her relative, Emily Jane (Newey) Barnes, born in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, England to a family of comb makers. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

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