From the Executive Director features news and reflections on the work of PHMC by its chief administrator.

As a trained historian who has devoted his life to the preservation and teaching of American history, I am embarrassed to admit how little I knew about my own family’s history—only a few bits and pieces passed down from my parents. I was told that our family settled in the old Northwest Territory before Ohio became a state in 1803 and that some of my ancestors came from Pennsylvania. I heard a family story about a fourth great-grandmother among those early frontier settlers who kept a full cookie jar because the local Indians had a sweet tooth and she wanted to be a good neighbor, but I never knew her name. My dad told me that we were related to President Andrew Jackson, or maybe it was General Stonewall Jackson. He wasn’t sure.

A few years ago, I decided it was time to solve these family mysteries and perhaps discover other family stories. Thanks to the internet, you can do a remarkable amount of family research online in the comfort of your own home. That is especially true if much of your family history is based in Pennsylvania.

Over the past five years the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC) has been busy digitizing its records and collections, with the goal of making them more accessible to every Pennsylvanian. Today more than 14 million archival records are available online, thanks in large part to PHMC’s cooperative relationship with These include birth and death certificates, military service documents, census data and land records. In my own case, I have discovered literally hundreds of documents related to my family preserved right here in the Pennsylvania State Archives and now readily available online.

The joy of doing genealogy is not just discovering your ancestors but also finding family connections to historic events and places. For me it makes American history much more personal and relevant. I discovered that my ancestors include a Quaker family who settled in Bucks County in the 1690s, a soldier who camped at Valley Forge with George Washington in the winter of 1777-78, and a great-great-grandfather who trained at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg during the Civil War. Each of these places and moments now has richer meaning for me. I have found that the process of doing family history is gratifying, challenging and sometimes frustrating. Each new discovery raises new questions to be answered and I look forward to solving new mysteries.

If you are curious about your family history, I urge you to give it a try. As a Pennsylvania resident, you can access many of your family’s records at no charge through the Pennsylvania State Archives website on the PA page. It’s easy but I must warn you, family research can be very addictive.

In closing, I want to tell you that I have found answers to a few of my family mysteries. One story begins right here in central Pennsylvania with my fifth great-grandfather, John Orr, who came with his parents from Northern Ireland in 1738 at age 12. The Orr family settled in Cumberland County across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg. John and his wife, Martha Dickey, raised five children on their farm. During the Revolutionary War, John served as a ranger on the frontier. He is buried in the Silver Spring Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Mechanicsburg. The family is memorialized in the nearby Orr’s Bridge and Orr’s Bridge Road.

My family descends through John’s daughter, Rachel. In 1798 Rachel married John Jackson. Yes, he turns out to be the first cousin of Andrew Jackson. Following their wedding, Rachel and her new husband set off on horseback for the Ohio frontier to start their life together. They settled in what became Jefferson County, built a successful farm and raised 8 children. I now know that it was Rachel Orr Jackson, my fourth great-grandmother, who kept the cookie jar full for her Indian neighbors.

James M. Vaughan
Executive Director, PHMC