How I found my 5th great-grandfather at the Library of Congress

You, too, can sit in this chair

You, too, can sit in this chair

“Saying you’re doing genealogical research,” the woman at the information desk in the Library of Congress suggested, giving me instructions on where to get the reader card (at the James Madison building, about a block away from the Thomas Jefferson building). Really, my goal had been to merely sit in the spectacular main reading room (which is now in a state of construction), in a chair with an eagle carved on the back and use the Internet.

But it clearly would have been a wasted opportunity to not do any research at one of the world’s greatest libraries, so I decided to actually use the free databases there to look up my forebears.

Of my eight great-grandparents, six were born in Europe, in Austria-Hungary, Germany or France. Researching their roots prior to their arrival in the U.S. is beyond my current capabilities. But the family of my maternal grandfather, John Powell, turns out to have been in the United States for a long time. Since before we were a nation.

Here’s some of what I learned in my online searches at the LOC:

My great-great grandfather, Granville Powell, fought in the F Company of the 88th Indiana Infantry Regiment in the Civil War. He joined in August 1862, but got the measles in 1863 and was on medical leave for eight months, missing the battle of Chickamauga, Ga., where his regiment suffered 11 casualties.

His father, Aaron Powell, also fought with Company F of the Indiana 130th Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, joining up in 1864 at the age of 42. He was an illiterate farmer, according to the 1850 Census.

Aaron’s Powell’s grandfather, William Powell, also an illiterate farmer, was born in Prince Edward, Virginia, and died in North Carolina. He fought in the Revolutionary War as a private for nine months. I am fortunate enough to know this because in 1832, after Congress passed a law granting pensions to veterans of the Revolution, William Powell walked into a courthouse in Wilkes County, North Carolina, and told the story of his Revolutionary war service to a court clerk with beautiful handwriting. Powell had two witnesses to back him up, he signed the clerk’s affidavit with his X, and five months later was granted a pension of $30 a year. His second wife, Rachel, was granted the pension upon his death. She lived to be 96!

The affidavit he signed makes his service sound pretty mundane:

“The company to which the deponent belonged did not join nor was attached to any particular regiment but was marched from place to place in order to be in readiness to cooperate with other companies in a similar situation to protect the low country from invasion by the British which at that time was apprehended” –

He served three three-month tours, marching from Halifax, N.C., to Tarborough, to Fayetteville, to Peacock’s Bridge on Great Contentnea Creek. In his final tour of duty in 1781, his company marched from Kingston, N.C., to Wilmington, Del., “where they were stationed until they heard of the capture of Lord Cornwallis in the latter part of October – and after the rejoicings on that occasion had subsided, they were discharged and returned home.”

William Powell went on to have two wives and nine children, his last child born when he was 54.

I was astounded to learn I have a Revolutionary War ancestor. I haven’t joined the DAR or anything, but knowing this makes me far more interested in the Revolution and the colonial period, which heretofore had seemed antique and remote. Now I think about how William’s experience of the war was limited to the area around his North Carolina home, restricted by how far his company could march. Three generations later, trains would carry Civil War soldiers to battlefields hundreds of miles from home.

There’s a lot more I’d like to know about the Powells. I don’t know anything about William Powell’s father. I don’t know what caused William’s sons Mason and Warren to leave North Carolina for Indiana around 1840. I don’t know if there are any slaveowners in the family tree. I don’t know if the North Carolina Powells also fought in the Civil War. But I look forward to searching for answers.

Library of Congress Main Reading Room

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