When Kathleen Powers-Vermaelen discovered that one of her ancestors was a witch, the information whetted her appetite to dig deep into her family's long-ago past.
While researching on family heritage websites, Powers-Vermaelen found a maternal relative named Jarvis Mudge whose widow, Rebecca, was accused of witchcraft and was tried, convicted and hanged in Hartford in 1662.
"It was a time when they were killing witches in Connecticut, 30 years before the Salem witch trials," Powers-Vermaelen said. "The night I found out I walked around my house with my hand over my mouth; this poor woman; it shook me to my very core. She confessed to having relations with the devil to save herself and her children from torture. They got her to totally destroy her own character. My strongest impulse was to honor her memory."
And so, Powers-Vermaelen, 45, of Bayport, a wife and mother, college professor, short story writer, owner of a home-based business, Paumanok Communications, and a history researcher, joined the Associated Daughters of Early American Witches in 2009. Members must trace their roots to someone in the colonies who was accused.
She went on to join other lineage organizations through which a growing number of Americans are delving into genealogy to discover and keep alive their families' and the nation's history.
"Genealogical societies have become trendy," said Powers-Vermaelen, who is an adjunct English instructor at Suffolk County Community College and an associate professor of English with Ashford University online.
"Everybody's doing it," according to Family Tree Magazine, which says on its website that 60 percent of Americans -- more than 122 million adults -- are interested in tracing their family roots. Genealogy is said to rank second to gardening as America's favorite pastime.
Powers-Vermaelen's own interest also led her to active membership in The Daughters of the American Revolution; The Flagon and Trencher -- an organization open to descendants of innkeepers -- and The Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
Powers-Vermaelen was recently elected president of the Long Island-based chapter of the latter group, which has 40 members and meets four times a year in one another's homes. "We discuss finances and upcoming events, such as laying a wreath at the tomb of President Ulysses Grant in Manhattan on the anniversary of his birthday; have some refreshments and chat casually," she said of the group, whose members are in their 20s to 80s.
Powers-Vermaelen is committed to the group's objectives: to keep alive the memory of the loyalty and unselfish sacrifices of those veterans -- "the Boys in Blue" -- to preserve the Union.
The war "ripped the fabric of the nation, but it had to right the wrong, and I think the fact that we were able to recover from that and mend says a lot about the strength of our nation," Powers-Vermaelen said.
She is leading a membership drive to bring in "women who are passionate about patriotism, education and veterans issues."
Honoring their heritageMembers of The Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War are 8 or older and are direct descendants of honorably discharged soldiers and sailors who served in the Union Army or Navy.
"The overall history of the Civil War and what it stood for is very important to the members," Powers-Vermaelen said.
Why should someone want to join? "It's a way for them to honor their heritage," she added, "and it's a way to get involved in the community with people that have the same values: patriotism, education and being concerned about veterans."
The Kady Brownell Tent #36 -- as the long-standing Long Island chapter is known -- includes northern New Jersey and Connecticut. It is named for a legendary woman who enlisted in 1861 in the First Rhode Island Infantry of the Union Army when her husband joined. She helped nurse sick and wounded soldiers and carried the Union colors. She was injured in battle and was honorably discharged in 1863.
Powers-Vermaelen said Kady Brownell Tent #36 has the distinction of being the only chapter in the national organization that had a member -- Caruth Smith Washington -- whose relative was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. On Jan. 31, 2001, the medal, the highest military award for combat gallantry presented by the United States government to a member of its Armed Forces, was awarded to Cpl. Andrew Jackson Smith, a runaway slave and Washington's father. Recipients must have risked their life above and beyond the call of duty in action against a U.S. enemy.
On Nov. 30, 1864, Cpl. Smith carried the colors of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment through heavy fire in the Battle of Honey Hill in South Carolina. His daughter lived in New Jersey and died there in 2012 at the age of 104.
Proving a family link
As with most genealogical organizations, members of The Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War must prove lineal relationship to an ancestor. Powers-Vermaelen qualified through one of her great-great-grandfathers who served in the war as a "First Class Boy, the lowest rank in the Navy."
Internet search groups have improved chances of tracking down an ancestor to open doors to a genealogical organization, according to Powers-Vermaelen.
"It's so easy now with all of these electronic records," she said. "If you can find proof you have an ancestor it's just a matter of getting the supporting documents: Census record, pension records, military records and so on. A lot of this stuff is for free."
Powers-Vermaelen got inspiration for her searches from her husband, Joseph Vermaelen, a history professor at Dowling College in Oakdale. He is president of the Long Island chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution and is also a member of The Society of the Colonial Wars. He has traced ancestors from his mother's side back to 1040s Scotland.
"My mother's side is well documented," he said. "They knew people like George Washington, and I'm a distant cousin of John Armstrong, who was secretary of war under James Madison.
"Everybody should know who their ancestors were, where they came from, and appreciate one generation to another," he added. "Your memories of your parents and grandparents you can give to your children."
Kathleen Wyer Lane, the Kady Brownell Tent #36 communications director and a former North Babylon resident, gained acceptance because her great-great-grandfather, Edward Wyer, was a drummer boy in the Corps D'Afrique (renamed the U.S. Colored Troops of the Union Army). He later became director of the Pensacola Opera House in Florida, Wyer Lane said. "The reason I joined the Daughters was to memorialize him."
One lineage organization, the National Colonial Dames XVII Century, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, comprises descendants of early colonists of the United States.
"Our members honor the hardships and heroism of those who sought spiritual and economic freedom in the wilderness of the New World," its website states. Betsy Bloomer, of Holbrook, a retired office manager, is president of the Long Island chapter. An ancestor on her father's side came on the Mayflower, she said.
"I wanted to honor my ancestors," Bloomer said. "They contributed to creating this country we live in, and I just find that fascinating. I also joined to be with other people who enjoy studying history. We also mark historic sites. We just marked the Davis Town Meeting House in Coram, dating from the 1700s."
Like many genealogy devotees, Bloomer is a member of more than one group.
"Once you get into one of these, you have so much fun you would want to get into others," she said.