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A Genealogy Journey

Roceta Gonzales always knew she had roots in America. As a child growing up in the Philippines, she often heard the story of her paternal great-grandfather, Colonel James Villard Heidt, an American officer fighting in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. He married Ms. Gonzales’ great-grandmother, but left the Philippines shortly after she gave birth to twins and never returned.

The story was hardly a source of pride for her family, but these days she’s grateful to know it, since the details have helped her unlock a rich ancestral past, with ties to the Revolutionary War and beyond.

In order to escape instability in the Philippines, Ms. Gonzales immigrated to the United States with her family when she was 8 years old. They settled in Los Angeles, and despite being the new kid, she remembers her fourth-grade teacher made the transition easier.

“She introduced me to the class in a way that celebrated my being a new student from another country,” says Ms. Gonzales, a member of Kate Waller Barrett Chapter, Alexandria, Va. “Instead of being teased and bullied, the children looked at me as sort of a celebrity. Years later, I realized what an incredible act she performed and how influential it was for my life.”

After moving to the Washington, D.C., area for her father’s work, curiosity about their American ancestor led Ms. Gonzales’ mother to the National Archives, where she was handed a box of his military records. “Inside the box was a manuscript of his ancestry traced all the way back to Colonial times,” Ms. Gonzales says.

But finding the manuscript was just the first step in the long process of validating it, and it took one of Ms. Gonzales’ cousins multiple trips to libraries across North America and Europe to do so. In the course of her research, the cousin attained membership with the Clan Munro USA, a Scottish genealogical heritage society. (President James Monroe was descended from the Clan Munro, whose members were located in the Scottish Highlands.) Ms. Gonzales, taking an interest in her cousin’s discoveries, joined the organization as well.

Ms. Gonzales since has joined the Georgia Salzburger Society and the DAR, of which she became a member in 2006.

In the process of applying for her DAR membership, Ms. Gonzales made another surprising discovery: Carobel Heidt, her great-great-aunt, the sister of her paternal great-grandfather, was a DAR member in the 1890s when the DAR was first formed. (“Her DAR number, 2898, was only four digits long and started with a two, which means she was probably one of the first 3,000 members of the Society,” she says.) She also discovered that her Patriot’s ancestors owned land in Fairfax County, Va., where she and her family moved in 1980.

“It gives me chills knowing that they lived here,” she says. “It’s like they called us home.”

While her various genealogy-based memberships are certainly a source of pride for Ms. Gonzales, belonging is about much more than that.

“I have realized that the real treasure in being able to join each genealogical society is the incredible ancestral journey that follows,” she says. “It’s like spending time with your grandparents and learning about their grandparents. Each society has given me a piece of the puzzle that is my family. It is a true self-discovery.”

Today, when she’s not furthering her knowledge of her family’s rich history, Ms. Gonzales works with her brother in his online retail business. In her spare time, she enjoys scrapbooking, which she says helped spark her initial interest in genealogy, and making handmade cards and origami sculptures. She is also doing research for her father’s autobiography, which will of course include a chapter on the family’s history.