Tracing Island Family Trees
French Cay Couple Say Islanders Basically One Big Family

October 26th, 2012
by Robert Armstrong

[private]

Sheryl Norman sits at her home office in French Cay behind part of the mountain of documents she and her partner Edgar Bodden have accumulated over the past six years on the Bay Islands’ oldest English-speaking families.

Sheryl Norman sits at her home office in French Cay behind part of the mountain of documents she and her partner Edgar Bodden have accumulated over the past six years on the Bay Islands’ oldest English-speaking families.

Edgar Bodden and Sheryl Norman didn’t exactly choose to start spending all their weekends trapsing around Roatan asking people about their family histories. Rather, as Norman puts it, “the project just kind of chose us.”

Norman and Bodden, who share a house in French Cay, have set out to document the roots and connections of all the old-line English-speaking families on the Bay Islands. Since the Voice last reported on their efforts in September 2011, the project has grown from a pastime to a passion. They have expanded their research to cover Utila and Guanaja as well as Roatan, they are seeking funding to visit archives off the islands, and Norman is looking into a permanent storage facility for their findings, which now amount to many mounds of paper, stacks of index cards and four computer databases, as well as photographs and family heirlooms. They have also bought a tape recorder to start an oral history project, to capture the stories of the passing generation of islanders while they still can.

“People are dying too fast here,” said Norman.

Bodden, who works as an accountant in French Harbour, started out researching his father’s family in 2006. He learned about his mother’s family, the Dixons, from oral tradition growing up in French Cay. But he knew very little about that of his father, who came from Oak Ridge.

The problem was, he discovered there are at least 15 branches of the Bodden Family on the islands. He thinks they are probably all descended from Isaac Bodden, who was born in England around 1700 and emigrated to the Cayman Islands, the ancestral land of most Bay Islands English-speaking families.

Genealogy is by nature geometrically complex. Whenever you fill in a missing link, you discover two more. Thus one may pursue the endeavor as long as one has the time, energy and curiosity to do so. That’s how it was for Edgar Bodden. The interconnections he discovered among island families particularly fascinated him.

“Basically, everybody from the Caymans, Guanaja, Utila and Roatan are all the same family,” said Bodden. “My last name is Bodden, and my mother’s name is Dixon. But we have Normans, we have Jacksons, we have Thompsons, Feurtados, McNabs, Jones, Bush, Hendersons, Parsons . . . all these names go back and they’re all part of your family.”

V10-11-People-Genealogy-2Norman joined the project when the two moved in together about four years ago and quickly grew to share her partner’s passion. They accumulated mounds of information from church records, the internet and personal interviews. They were able to trace many Roatan families back to the first ancestor who arrived from the Caymans. Then, says Norman, the two of them were sitting on their back porch about three years ago and Bodden said, “It would be nice to do the whole island.” And that was that. Eventually the project grew to include Guanaja and Utila as well.

To date the earliest Anglo surnames they have been able to find in Roatan records are McNab and Ross, in the 1820s. Many more families followed in the 1830s and ‘40s, especially after slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, prompting an outflow of newly freed Afro-descended people. Both black and white families from the Caymans moved to the Bay Islands to farm, because the soil and water were better, Bodden said. In many cases the freed slaves adopted the surnames of their former owners. Thus many Bay Islands surnames have both black and white branches.

To an amazing degree, certain families have stayed put where their progenitors first settled in the 19th century. For example, James remains the most common surname in Sandy Bay, where Thomas William James settled in the 1850s, and Brookses, together with Bennetts, still predominate in Flowers Bay, where Benjamin Brooks arrived in 1841.

Bodden and Norman have also documented a handful of Spanish families whose roots on Roatan stretch back more than a century. These include the Bustillo, Flores, Duarte and Hernandez families, who populated Corozal, Juticalpa and First Bight. But they have made no effort to study Hispanic families who have arrived in recent decades from the Honduran mainland, except to the extent that they have intermarried with the older families.

“We’re not including any newcomers,” said Norman.

Nor have they attempted to research the Garifuna families, who predominate in Punta Gorda and can trace their roots on Roatan back 215 years.

“They’re a whole other world,” said Norman, and she doesn’t have the time or resources to take it on. However, she said she had information on Garifuna families who have married into Anglo families, which she would gladly share with “whoever wants to do the Garifuna families.”

Norman recently made a presentation to the Roatan Rotary Club to request travel money to visit Trujillo and Tegucigalpa, which have archives she thinks might hold valuable information on Bay Islands families. She said she had also spoken to Matthew Harper, a longtime Roatan resident and operations manager at the Roatan Electric Company (RECO) about finding a permananent storage facility for both the genealogical records and other Roatan historical documents.

“I want to form an archive center,” said Norman. “That’s my ultimate goal; that’s where eventually everything is going to be stored.” She said she found it “very sad” that she has to travel to other locations to find information on Roatan, “but no one here has our information.”

Norman and Bodden say at this point they have a pretty good outline of the English-speaking Bay Islands families, but still lots of details to fill in. Norman estimates the work is about 25 percent completed; Bodden refuses to hazard a guess.

“I’m just out collecting stuff right now,” said Norman. [/private]

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