Westfield Teen Historian Travels East Coast to Track Down Long-Lost Family

Greta Crandall conducts research in a dusty basement during her freshman year.

WESTFIELD, NJ — Can you name your great grandfather? How about your great, great grandfather? Greta Crandall can, and then some. The Westfield High School senior has traced her family all the way the back to 1510.

There’s Prudence Crandall, who ran the first racially integrated school. There’s John Elder Crandall, founder of Westerly, R.I., and a pioneer advocate for religious freedom during the colonial era. There’s great, great, great grandfather Horace Crandall of Virginia, who was a member of the Union Army during the American Civil War.

It all started six years ago, when Greta’s father, Bill Crandall, stopped on the highway near Lake George, N.Y., to find the grave of his great grandfather.

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“When we got there we found other ‘Crandall’ and ‘Crandell’ graves, but nobody in our family knew who they were,” said Crandall. “I wanted to know who these people were.”

Since then, the teen has spent her summers chasing distant and forgotten relatives across the east coast, from farms and cemeteries in upstate New York and Rhode Island to battlefields in Virginia.

“Most genealogy clues lead nowhere. There were definitely some long afternoons hunting in vain for apparently unmarked gravestones,” she said. “The hours researching can make this project feel lonely, but it really does end up bringing people together.”

Crandall said she found most of her clues through oral family history from relatives, including her father and grandfather.

“This then led me to cemeteries and county clerk’s offices where I searched for graves and looked through documents,” she said. “Ancestry.com was also helpful in that it is able to link me to documents that have been scanned in from different sources, an example being a county clerk’s office."

The most fulfilling part of the project, she said, was when she traveled to Carlisle, Pa., to meet 95-year-old Dorothy Crandall, a fourth cousin twice-removed, who was raised by non-other than war veteran Horace Crandall.

“We sat on her couch surrounded by photos of her grandchildren. I showed her how to swipe my iPad with her index finger to navigate our common family tree.” said Greta Crandall. “My favorite story is the one of kindly old Horace — her great grandfather and my great, great, great grandfather — limping up the hill to fetch a basin of fresh water for Dorothy and her three little brothers to take their weekly bath. ‘We would compete to look the cleanest,’ Dorothy said. ‘After all, the dirtiest one had to get in last.’”

Earlier in his life, Horace Crandall left his farm on the banks of Lake George at the age of 21 to enlist in the Union Army, Greta Crandall learned. He fought in the first land battle of the Civil War at Big Bethel, Va., and more than a dozen others between 1861 and 1863. He was wounded at the Chancellorsville, and as a result limped for the remainder of his life. He was in Virginia for the state’s first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, she learned, and met President Abraham Lincoln when stationed on the banks of the James River.

Greta Crandall’s father Bill Crandall has been her driver and research assistant.

“Finding out that Crandalls have a direct line in this country back to the 16th Century was surprising, and I think it's changed our perspective,” Bill Crandall said. “I am enormously proud of Greta and the lives she has explored. Greta is easily my favorite teenage historian.”

Greta’s work is not done yet, as she is currently researching her great grandmother’s branch of the family, who are of Dutch descent and immigrated to New York City in the early 20th Century, she said.

Overall, she has found that the Crandall ancestry ranges from English men and women who sought religious freedom in the New World, Dutch colonists, Irish immigrants and war veterans of the Civil War and the French and Indian War.

“I never expected it to take me this far,” said Greta Crandall. “Anybody can do this, but you have to really want to put in the time. When you do, it is incredibly rewarding. Our paths undoubtedly intersect with each other’s and great moments in history. The more we all know about our common past, the easier it is to collaborate to build a common future.”

Mack Liederman is a student at Westfield High School participating in a journalism program with TAP into Westfield.

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