Finding The McCabe Roots - Part I

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Genealogy - is becoming more and more popular with television shows and online subscription services like My father in law, Vernon McCabe, had only a passing interest in history when some family business led him to a lifelong fascination with genealogy.

His sister had already been bitten by the genealogy bug and had been trying to get him interested in their family tree which went back many generations right here on Delmarva. When their father passed away and some of the property he bequeathed to them did not have a clear title, Vernon decided to research the land's provenance himself. This revealed some interesting family and local history and he was hooked.

Now, this was over thirty years ago when the personal computer was just starting to become available to the general public. Vernon visited local libraries, county land patent offices, historical archives, and attended family reunions. And, he began simply calling people in the phone book with the last names found on his family tree.
The focus of his research became one John McCabe, the earliest person in this country with that family name that he could trace his line back to. But unlike many genealogists, he was not simply interested in going backwards. He wanted to find all the other people who were descended from John McCabe. He has compiled a book now in its third edition with over 47,000 names of his McCabe "cousins". He has also compiled a book of relatives on his mother's side: the Quillens. It is not surprising that he found that he was related to many people here on Delmarva but he also found that he had relatives with diverse ethnic backgrounds beyond what he knew to be his own white Scots-Irish heritage.

I recently visited him and asked him he to share some of his experiences searching for his family. Here is Vernon McCabe:

"I am glad I got started and I thank my sister. Oh, by the way that's Emma Grace McCool of Elkton Maryland. Um, after all those years of her trying to get me interested, she finally did. And I am glad, because I have had a lot of time after I finished serious work, employment. And if I had not had genealogy, I don't know what I would have done with my time."

"Well, I did spend a lot of time going backwards. I got back to Charlemagne, and even before that Alexander the Great. I mean, all the big names you can think of, I had. And, I was descended from all of them. Any way I had a pretty big chart going back many, many generations. And then my sister informed me that one of our ancestors that was in the chain going backwards, didn't have any children. So, all those nice ancestors were all gone. I had to wipe them out."

"I decided that if I start with the one the furthest back and got all the descendents, that more people would be interested because they could place relationships with all their cousins, and there might be more interest involved. Uh, and I think that is the way it has turned out. I think it has."

"Half of Sussex County and half of Worcester County are in the McCabe or Quillen book. And it is very common to go out and start hearing about genealogy and somebody wiil say: "Are you in the book? Are you in the book?" Well, everybody knows what the book is, and uh, they all take some interest in being cousins to someone else who would otherwise be strangers."

"I was sitting in my office on a Sunday afternoon and I thought ok I'll start and looked up a number, somewhere probably in Worcester County and said: "Mrs. Smith, my name is Vernon McCabe and I am trying to do the family tree and I am hoping you can help me." "What do you want son?" And I said: "Well, I'm trying to figure out who you mother and father were and your kids, and put it all in the computer."

"And she said: "Son, I don't think I am going to tell you a damn thing." And, she hung up on me."

"But since that time, I've never had anyone hang up on me. They were all tickled to death to be included. And I think word got out that they were 'in the book'."

"You asked me: Would people talk to me when I called them? Well, not only would they talk to me, but we are no longer strangers even though we only talked on the telephone. They… I never had anyone give me a bad check for a book. And I know that the McCabe's have just as many ornery people as any other clan does. But when you are cousins, you don't give bad checks."

"I was in physical therapy one time. And I got to know all the people there for a couple months period. And, they found out I did genealogy, and asked if I would help with theirs. And, a couple of them I did help. And of course everybody in there we started calling cousins."

"There was a black guy in there who had already done his family tree. And he and I got a big kick out of calling each other cousins."

"And there was a little black girl in there. She wasn't a girl she was mid twenties, or something like that. Very quiet, demure. One day she came up to me and said: "Mr. Cabe, would you do mine?"

"And I said: "Uh, Cassie, I've never done any black genealogy. And you say you're from Virginia, Eastern shore." And she said: "Yes."

"And I said: "Your parents, do they come from slaves?" And she said: "Yes."

"And I said: "Well, I'll try." She had to go home and get some people that were born before the 1940's so that I could look [them] up on the census. But the next time she cam in she gave me a list. And then, I went back. And the next day I came back and I said "Cassie," and of course everybody is listening. I said "Cassie, guess what? You and I are cousins." And she said "Whaat?"

"I said: "Yup, we are cousins. You go back to the Scarboroughs and I am descended from the Scarboroughs." There was a female who owned the plantation. And apparently she took in a field hand, and they ended up having four kids. They were listed in the census, and it gave their name as the field hand's last name. And she claimed them as her own kids. I said: "We're both come from the Scarborouhgs."

"Well the nice part of what it was, this nice demur little girl, came out of herself. And, she started to talk to people, started calling me 'cousin', uh, and calling everybody else 'cousin'. And I feel like that all the thirty-five years I was working on it was all worth it for just that one thing."

Click here to find Part Two of this story.

Find out more about the Vernon McCabe and his book The Descendants of John McCabe:

Here is a check list to get your search started. Collect the following for any ancestors you are looking for:

  • Full Names

  • Birth Date & Location

  • Death Date & Location

  • Marriage Date & Location

  • Occupations & Employers

  • Branch & approximate dates of military service

  • Schools Attended

  • Religious Affiliation & Place of Worship

  • Places they may have owned property

This information may lead you to look for your ancestors' names on ship manifests, in census records, court probate records, church records, among others. Here are links to some resources to help you get started: