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Man finds dozens of relatives in census records

By Katherine Dorsett, CNN
John William Harris hopes his family tree research will inspire his children, including Jemon, right, to continue the efforts.
John William Harris hopes his family tree research will inspire his children, including Jemon, right, to continue the efforts.
  • Poll finds 87 percent of Americans have interest in their family roots
  • John William Harris is one of millions of Americans who traced his family tree
  • Many free and subscription websites allow access to research genealogy in the U.S.

(CNN) -- His father's death certificate, long-lost relatives and a town possibly named after an ancestor are just a few of the details John William Harris found as he researched his family tree.

Harris, 62, a sales executive and consultant from Atlanta, Georgia, had always hoped to learn more about his family, including his father, John Henry Harris, whom he said was murdered by another man when he was 5 years old.

"The man who killed my father was never tried in a court of law. In small-town Gainesville, Georgia, in 1953, such a crime -- black on black -- was not considered important and often went unpunished," said Harris.

Lt. Stephanie Gilbert of Hall County Sheriff's Department said there's no file telling exactly what happened, because records from that period were burned by a former sheriff. Gainesville police said they did not have records from that time, either.

His death certificate indicates Harris died from complications after a stab wound.

"I had long put the lack of knowledge of his murder behind me," said Harris. "This revelation about the lost records only rekindles the old feelings and my desire to know the truth of what happened."

Harris' journey to learn more about his father's life and death and his family background took him to the internet and into U.S. census records and other online websites.

Harris grew up with his mother's family on Race Street in Gainesville (the family called it the "Big House") and heard a lot about their history. But Harris said his family hid most information about his father's death in order to protect him and they did not have a lot of recorded information about that side of his family tree. However, Harris said he was inspired to learn more about his past after recently watching the PBS special "African American Lives."

"After seeing what was possible and how fulfilling it was for those who discovered their backgrounds, I felt both encouraged and a little guilty I hadn't made the effort before," said Harris.

Map: Research your family history
Researching family history is not hard, but it takes work being a detective.
--John William Harris

Harris is one of millions of Americans interested in learning and researching details about family origins.

A Harris Interactive poll (no relation to John Harris) found 87 percent of Americans want to know more about their family background.

For his search into his father's side of the family, Harris didn't have much information to work with when he started -- only his father's and grandmothers' names.

When Harris began, he found it difficult to focus on his career or even eat and sleep.

"I was so engaged about learning information about my history and spent many hours researching it online. My wife joked that I spent more time on the computer than I did with her or at my job," Harris said with a chuckle.

"Researching family history is not hard, but it takes work being a detective," said Harris. "The computer, the internet and the accumulation of databases that never existed before make it easier to get started right in your own home."

Many subscription websites allow you to access databases for a fee and it's a big business. For instance, says it has more than 1 million paying subscribers and has the largest collection of records on the internet. Subscribers can pay as little as $12.95 a month for access to some records. Higher fees provide greater access. Some of the other fee-based sites are, and is maintained by the the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). This site is free. It is organized by volunteers, so there is no hidden cost to join or access the vast database. LDS said it has about 50,000 hits a day on its site.

Microfilm copies of original U.S. census records from 1790 through 1930 are available for research at the National Archives in Washington and its 13 regional archives. Many libraries and courthouses also store tax and property records and other documents that might help trace people through history.

For Harris, his first big discovery was an unknown uncle, Ebbie Harris, listed in a 1920 census record. Harris learned his father's brother had died as a schoolboy. "I was shocked he ever existed," said Harris.

Harris also said he discovered at least 50 relatives he didn't know about while using census reports from 1900 to 1930 on Gainesville, Georgia.

"It was exciting to see the names of all of my family." The census records opened his eyes to how big his family was.

Harris was amused by some of the details revealed by the records.

"I learned my grandfather Wade Harris was 69 years old and married to my grandmother, who was only 31 when the census was taken in 1920. I was amazed at their age difference," Harris said with a chuckle.

In this photo: John Henry Harris and a relative named Annie Hancock.
In this photo: John Henry Harris and a relative named Annie Hancock.

Harris didn't find out a lot of new details about his father beyond the year of his birth and the exact date of his death.

"It was thrilling to see confirmation of his date of death. Though the details were minute, the joy of discovery was overwhelming for me," Harris said.

For Harris, researching his past has been a roller-coaster ride of many emotions, but he was glad to be on the journey. One of his greatest highs was when he discovered the town of Chamblee, Georgia, may have been named after his great-great grandfather.

"Apparently Ransom Chamblee, a former slave, made such an impression on the local people that when the town applied for a post office they may have named the town after him," said Harris.

A historian in DeKalb County, Georgia, said there is a strong possibility that the town was named after a former slave named Ransom Chamblee, but could not confirm it.

Harris said investigating his family has been rewarding and has given him a sense of belonging and knowing more about his history.

"Above all, I am appreciative of the struggles so many have gone through to prepare the way for us," said Harris.

Harris has been married to Mary Alice, his high school sweetheart, for nearly 45 years. They have three children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

"I'm happy that our family tree is captured for them and more will be forthcoming," said Harris. "I hope they will take advantage and continue the efforts."