A scare with traffic kept D. Gordon Draves off of his bicycle for 25 years. Learning about his ancestors got him back on. For the past three summers, the 71-year-old East Point resident has embarked on ambitious bike trips in the hopes of learning about his family’s history. Even places that didn’t turn up much in the way of documentation still paid off, Draves says. “It really just feels good to follow in the footsteps of your ancestors.”
Q: What got you back on a bicycle?
A: Genealogy. I had found out that my 4th great-grandfather, John Gritton, was in the Revolutionary War. He was born in 1755 in Winchester, Virginia, and moved with his parents to the Youghiogheny River Valley of what is now the southwest corner of Pennsylvania. I met someone who had ridden their bike on the Great Allegheny Passage trail from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland. When she showed me the trail map and I saw the Youghiogheny River, I started thinking, “I need to do this trail.” In 2015, I went on a 170-mile bicycle trip on the Great Allegheny Passage and some around Pittsburgh.
Q: You went back the next year?
A: In 2016, I rode 400 miles on the Great Allegheny Passage, the Montour Trail west of Pittsburgh, and the C&O Canal Towpath that runs from Cumberland, Maryland, to Washington, D.C. A blowout prevented me from doing the last 5 miles.
Q: And this past summer?
A: From Aug. 7 to Sept. 7, I biked about 500 miles across Illinois and the Katy Trail in Missouri. I was on a website about the solar eclipse and clicked on Missouri for no reason. Two of my friends had done the Katy Trail and I noticed that Augusta, Missouri, which is on the trail, would have 2 minutes and 19 seconds of totality. That was all well and good, but it wouldn’t have been enough. Genealogy stepped in again.
Q: How so?
A: I decided to start in Danville, Illinois, because my great-grandparents had lived in the area and had 14 children, one of them was my grandfather. I also went to Shipman, Illinois, where my great-great-grandfather was listed in the 1860 census along with his wife and newborn. He served in the 88th Illinois Infantry Regiment during the Civil War and is the reason I joined the Sons of Union Veterans.
Q: Any interesting adventures?
A: It was already dark before I arrived in Monticello, Illinois, and before I got to the town, I came upon the Monticello Cemetery, rode in, went to the back area and camped behind a mausoleum. In Virden, Illinois, I slept on my air mattress on the floor of the Virden police lobby for 10 hours because it was storming with strong winds.
Q: Why is genealogy so important to you?
A: It just is. My mother, who was one of 12 children, was very much into telling about her family. My mother’s side of the family came over in the 1640s and settled in Newbury, Massachusetts. One of my heroes growing up was Daniel Boone. Come to find out that my great-grandfather Gritton was on two expeditions with him. With computers, it is just amazing how much we can find out about our ancestors.
Q: What’s the benefit of going and seeing the places as well?
A: It is just so interesting to be in the little towns where my ancestors lived, knowing that they would have been walking these areas.
Q: Do you ever worry that you might find something unsavory in your family tree?
A: That is always a concern. In fact, I did find two thieves who were transported to America. My fifth great-grandparent, William Gritton, stole a shirt worth three shillings.
Q: How did it feel to learn about that?
A: Kind of disappointed but glad he got transported.
Q: What’s your next adventure?
A: I am thinking about Massachusetts. Both maternal and paternal lines of my family had roots there.
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The Sunday Conversation is edited for length and clarity. Writer Ann Hardie can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.