Hilton Head Island native Murray Christopher, 66, had long wondered about his paternal ancestry.
Then, he and other islanders got help filling in the blanks from Clemson University, Ancestry.com and several local organizations.
"Fifty years after graduating high school, I'm now getting information that I should have had as a child growing up," Christopher said. "This is very important for me."
Christopher's father, an only child, said little about his family roots and left behind few records to shed light on the long-obscured branch of the Christopher family tree.
Then, Christopher stumbled across a clue -- a headstone in the secluded Drayton family cemetery near the end of Beach City Road in what was once Mitchelville, the first self-governed freed slaves' town in America.
The headstone reads: "S. Christopher, Co. E, USCT Inf." It places him among the U.S. Colored Troops that defended the island and Mitchelville during the Civil War. Many were escaped slaves or were liberated by federal troops and called "contraband."
"Samuel Christopher is a name that's been passed down through the family (including Murray Christopher's father) ... and there was only one Christopher family on Hilton Head, and that was ours," Murray Christopher said.
But he needed more details to piece together the puzzle of his lost family connection.
With the help of Monica Magalas, a third-year architecture student at Clemson University, Murray found a missing piece to the family puzzle -- a copy of a deposition in support of his great-grandfather's application for a military pension.
On Monday, Magalas and other students presented Christopher and 10 other native-island families with oak plaques outlining their family histories back to Mitchelville. Over three semesters, students from Clemson's Pan-African Studies Program, in collaboration with the Heritage Library, Mitchelville Preservation Project and Ancestry.com, will help reconstruct the genealogy of Mitchelville residents.
With the deposition and other records, Murray Christopher learned that Samuel Christopher enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 20 in 1863 and was discharged three years later in Charleston. He moved to Savannah, where he lived for 20 years before moving back to Hilton Head, according to Murray Christopher.
"I've got family members who are younger than me that have got no clue about any of this history," said Christopher, adding he intends to write a book about what he's learned, "so no one else in my family will have that gap of their history missing."
This spring, Clemson students will record the islanders' oral histories, according to Barbara Hamberg, coordinator of the Clemson project.
Students will then sift through interviews to produce a video to be shared with South Carolina schools and libraries and possibly as a documentary on South Carolina public television, Hamberg said.
The project also helps the Heritage Library's efforts to identify all 1,500 or so ex-slaves who inhabited the town of Mitchelville between 1862 and 1868, according to Linda Piekut, executive director of the Heritage Library Foundation. So far, the Hilton Head-based library has identified about 500 Mitchelville residents from military and hospital records.
"Mitchelville is just a fascinating story that needs to be told," Hamberg said. "... We always thought Hilton Head was nothing but golfers. To find this rich heritage and rich history -- not only African-American history or South Carolina history, but American history -- is precious and it's information that we need" to preserve.
Hilton Head Island resident Murray Christopher and Clemson University student Monica Magalas speak about working and learning together on a Mitchelville ancestory project.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.