Grandpa, Is That You? – Learning Your Family’s History (with Stories and Some Research Tips)

Have you ever taken the time to dig into your family history? Believe me, it takes time. Sometimes you find things that you didn’t want to know, for example, perhaps you find out that your grandfather did time in prison for stealing tires during World War II. Then there are moments when you find things to be proud of like your great-great-great-grandfather served in the Dutchess County Regiment during the Civil War. As a historian, I spend a good deal of time searching through other families histories in the hope of understanding historical events. Once in a while, I take the time to look at my family’s part in history (the good and the bad), and I’ve come to learn some pretty amazing (and absurd) things.

When it comes to genealogy, you must start with your most recent relatives and build a tree backward in time. I began with my paternal (meaning father’s side) grandfather, Harry Butler. I discovered that when Harry was 19 years old, he was sent to Elmira Reformatory for stealing tires at Stanford. He wasn’t alone; his brother Virgil would end up following him there a few months later. The county judge said that he was unpatriotic but at some point during his time in the slammer he eventually decided to join the war effort instead of cooling his heels in prison. You may ask yourself, how does one find these things? A search in showed me an article from the Poughkeepsie Journal concerning my grandfather’s court appearance. This was followed by a search through the New York State Archives, which led me to his prison record and mugshot (pictured).

I decided to follow Harry’s mother’s side of the family to see how far back I could go. Hattie Burnett Butler (my great grandmother) has a line that stretches back through Dutchess County history. Using, I was able to trace back to my 9th great grandfather, one of the earliest settlers of Poughkeepsie, Baltus Van Kleeck (1645-1717). Baltus was originally from the Netherlands and made his way to the New Netherland around 1654. He moved around from New Jersey and Albany until he finally landed on some land that would eventually be known as Poughkeepsie. The Library has the original deed from the sale of land in their archives. In 1702 Van Kleeck built the first house in Poughkeepsie on what is now known as Mill Street, and a family burial ground was developed nearby. The house stood until 1835, when it was finally removed to make way for more modern buildings but not before local historian Benson Lossing made a sketch drawing of it. 

Van Kleeck appears on the list of inhabitants of Colonial New York in 1714, he and his wife Caryntje lived with a few other unknown family members and at least five slaves. It’s disappointing to know that one of my ancestors had enslaved people. It makes me wonder how they were treated, and if my ancestors ever questioned the practice of owning people. 

That being said, I also discovered that my great-great-great grandfather on my grandmother’s side of the family, was part of the fight to end slavery. Charles Wyant enlisted in Rhinebeck on September 5, 1862, into the 150th New York State Volunteers, also known as the Dutchess County Regiment. He would make his way through the war seeing action in places like Gettysburg until he was captured in Fayetteville, North Carolina, March 11, 1865. Luckily for him, the war would be over in less than a month and he would be released without enduring a lengthy stay in a Confederate prison camp.

So how does one find all of these things? As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, it takes time and a lot of research. Here at the Poughkeepsie Public Library District, we have some great resources to help you get started including access to and Historical Newspapers from the 1700s-2000s – We have a large collection in our Genealogy Room and classes on how to use these resources, make sure to check out our calendar. Also, you can also email me, Shannon Butler, Historian, with any questions at


Poughkeepsie Journal, Oct 7, 1942

New York State Archives, Department of Corrections, Elmira Reformatory Records

O’Callaghan, Edmund. “Lists of Inhabitants of Colonial New York” (Baltimore 1979) Pg. 16 Gen 974.7 Lis


Photo-01 – Mugshot of Harry Butler at Elmira Reformatory, 1942.

Photo-02 – Photo of the Van Kleeck deed for land in Poughkeepsie, 1697, LH Collections.

Photo-03- Benson Lossing’s sketch of the Van Kleeck House in Poughkeepsie, built 1702, demolished in 1835 – LH collections.

Photo-04 – Military record of Charles Wyant of Rhinebeck, 1865.