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New Jersey girl traces heritage through region

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BOLTON  While her friends were sitting on white sandy beaches working on their tans, Greta Crandall was happily trekking through battle sites and long-forgotten cemeteries.

The 17-year-old Westfield, New Jersey, high school student has spent the past five years tracking down her ancestors and building a family tree that goes all the way back to the 1500s.

And it all started in Bolton.

Driving up the Northway on the way to Montreal, Greta’s father mentioned he remembered his father and grandfather bringing him to his great-grandfather’s grave in the Bolton area.

On a whim, the family pulled off the exit, made a few phone calls and found their way to Federal Hill Cemetery, where they found the graves of Greta’s great-great-grandfather, James D. Crandell (names, Greta explained, were sometimes spelled phonetically, so some families had more than one spelling), and Catherine, her great-great-great-grandmother.

Then Greta was hooked.

“I used to really hate history when I was younger because I hated memorizing dates and everything, but once we did this, I really started loving it,” she said. “It’s cool to make it personal.”

“For a lot of younger people, when brought to a cemetery, you’re either, ‘Oh, we’re going to a cemetery again,’ or you’re ‘Who are these people?‘,” said Lisa Dougherty, an Albany-area genealogist who one day a month works out of Crandall Public Library.

Dougherty fell in love with genealogy much like Greta did, with a trip to the cemetery with her dad.

“Cemeteries bring it to life for some people,” Dougherty said.

That kind of immediate interest, coupled with the broad accessibility to information online, is making genealogy a bit of a fad, with such shows as TLC’s “Who Do You Think You Are” and PBS’s “Genealogy Roadshow” tracing celebrities’ heritage, and websites like ancestry.com or findagrave.com taking some of the legwork out of the search process.

“The Internet has made it possible to research people from anywhere,” Dougherty said. “It’s awesome.”

But Greta Crandall wasn’t content to sit at a computer. She made road trips to visit county clerk offices, old homesteads and churches, visiting Bolton three times and stopping in Fort Ann, Lake George and Glens Falls.

Greta has debunked family myths — among them that her great-great-grandfather, James, abandoned his family and was then killed by a train. She also found out when her ancestors came from Europe to the United States and, most interesting to her, discovered that her great-great-great-grandfather, Horace, fought in the Civil War.

She spent school vacations traveling as far as Virginia to retrace Horace Crandall’s service through the Civil War.

The family had stories from Greta’s great-grandfather, Fred, who traveled from Asbury Park, New Jersey, to Bolton as a child to visit Horace. They included Horace being wounded in Gettysburg, but Greta’s research found Horace Crandall mustered out in May 1863, two months before it took place.

Greta started in Troy, where Horace Crandall was part of the 2nd Infantry Regiment, then tracked him through Big Bethel and the Battle of Fredericksburg (Virginia) which, she said, “was brutal for the Union army.”

As the men clamored up a hill, Confederate soldiers shot them down. Some crossed the Rappahannock River, where the deadliest part of the battle took place.

“Horace never crossed the river and, if he had, our whole line might not have existed,” Greta said.

Horace’s military service ended after an injury in Chancellorsville, Virginia. Greta found pension records that indicate he suffered a leg injury.

“We’re all busy living and dying and have no idea how we got here and here’s Greta to show us,” said Bill Crandall, Greta’s father, pride clearly showing as he talked about her research.

“I think it’s cool to see how you got to be who you are,” Greta said.

Greta found and had lunch with 95-year-old Dorothy Crandell, her grandfather’s second cousin. Crandell lived with Horace Crandall, her great-grandfather, for the first 10 years of her life and the last 10 of his.

“That was mind-blowing,” Bill Crandall said, “to sit at lunch and have my daughter have a conversation with someone who knows someone who was in the Civil War.”

Crandell told Greta stories about Horace, saying he was a kind old man who, once a week, walked up a hill to the family well and brought back buckets of water for bath time. Children were lined up cleanest to dirtiest, with the one who was cleanest getting the first bath, so Crandell said it was a Saturday night contest to appear as clean as possible.

Greta revels in her role as family expert.

“We have those old myths — some of them turned out to be true and some to be false,” she said. “We’ll be at a party and one of them (relatives) will be like, ‘This happened’ and I’ll be like, ‘No, actually it didn’t happen; we’ve proved it didn’t.’ “

Greta’s work was so thorough, she found 17 generations of Crandalls (with some Crandles or Crandells thrown in), all the way back to Elder John Crandall, who helped found Westerly, Rhode Island, and was head of the Seventh Day Baptist Church that fled Ireland to avoid persecution.

The magnitude of her research isn’t lost on her.

“I don’t know if it’s scary but I feel like it’s a little scary, but I also think there’s a little belief of fate that I have from looking through all this as far as the people who lived and the people who didn’t and how that impacted our family,” she said.

“I have two sisters and my dad had all sisters, so our line of the Crandall name ends with me,” she said. “So I’ll definitely show this to my kids.

“It’s cool that maybe, someday, my granddaughter will find me,” she said.

Rhonda Triller is features editor at The Post-Star. She can be reached via email at rtriller@poststar.com.

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