Chattanooga man part of volunteer network that helps people trace their roots

Chattanooga man part of volunteer network that helps people trace their roots

July 31st, 2011 by Clint Cooper in Life Entertainment

Genealogy volunteer Bill Caldwell sits in the Chattanooga Public Library on Wednesday after spending most of the day researching the family histories of people he has never met. Caldwell became interested in genealogy while studying government at Florida State University and now volunteers with the national organization, Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness.

Photo by Alex Washburn/Times Free Press.

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To connect with Bill Caldwell, contact Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness at www.raogk.org, where the guidelines for making a request are explained.

When Bill Caldwell looks for buried treasure, he's not seeking gold, jewels or coins. He is on the hunt for things like World War I draft registration records and cemetery listings.

The Chattanooga resident is one of about 4,000 volunteers for a group called Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness who do free genealogical research.

"I can watch daytime TV or grass growing, whichever is less boring," said Caldwell, a retired government employee, "or I can do some worthwhile research, analysis and documentation that will help someone else and be fun for me, too."

The Florida native said he has done genealogical research for 40 years or more. He has volunteered his time to help other people for the last 10 or 12 years and has worked through Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness for the last several years.

Caldwell does the bulk of his research -- mostly for clients from out of state and numerous foreign countries -- online and at the Chattanooga Public Library. Occasionally he goes to the Chattanooga National Cemetery, the Hamilton County Courthouse or venues farther afield, he said.

"Obviously, I have an interest in genealogy," he said, "but probably not to the extent of people who trace their ancestry back to Adam.

"I thoroughly enjoy the thrill of the chase," Caldwell said. "What was that 1850 census enumerator really trying to record, or did that late 19th-century immigrant really understand the [census] questions, or where did those people go?

While volunteers with Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness donate their time, clients pay the volunteer's expenses such as printing fees, postage, film or video tape and parking fees.

Caldwell typically receives requests for copies of obituaries; birth, marriage or death certificates; city directory listings; or gravesite photos at the national cemetery.

Those are "one-shot deals," he said, but his experience allows him to occasionally offer additional information.

"If only an obit is requested, for example, I'll often suggest including the death certificate with it," he said, "since the slight additional cost is vastly offset by the enhanced information likely to be in the certification. If I see that the deceased is buried in the national cemetery, I'll volunteer to take and send digital photos of the grave site."

Non-typical requests, according to Caldwell, generally involve Civil War research or recurring requests from long-standing clients or friends compiling massive family histories.

The Chattanooga Public Library, he said, has a good concentration of information on people in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama and has complete service records for Civil War soldiers in both the Confederate and Union armies.

Joel Rind, owner of The Stamp Collector in the James Building, said he appreciates Caldwell's assistance in helping determine "the characteristics and personalities involved" in Civil War-era collectible postal covers.

"He's really a nice fellow," he said.

Caldwell has provided more than 100 obituaries for one friend, a retired scholar, and has worked with another friend in the Northwest for several years.

The retired scholar, he said, has "gotten his Southeastern roots well-documented now."

Caldwell spends all day most Wednesdays at the library and "a great deal of time" online in the evenings. He also uses several online services, both free and nominally priced, insisting that, "like with most hobbies, you've got to spend a little money."

His experience helps unearth some facts, he said, and he acknowledges "a little luck, too."

One of the most interesting cases Caldwell worked on, he said, was a simple request that turned into more.

"A woman in Texas," he said, "somehow discovered online that a long lost ancestor had died in Chattanooga and asked for an obit. The more I looked at the name, the more intrigued I got. It was an unusual German surname. I did a little looking here, then asked the woman if she'd like the documentation on all the people here with that surname since it was obvious they were the same family.

"She jumped at the chance," Caldwell said, "and I gathered up obits, [marriage and death] certificates, World War I draft registrations, census sheets -- everything that connected -- and shipped it all to her. She later wrote me that [it] was the best $25 she had ever spent."