Genealogy helps attract new members to the Daughters of the American Revolution in Michigan

Genealogy helps attract new members to the Daughters of the American Revolution in Michigan

Genealogy helps attract new members to the Daughters of the American Revolution in Michigan

For Michelle Campbell, the words of the Declaration of Independence are a “vision in progress” for the United States of America.

It is a document of an era that he is passionate about, as his paternal fifth great-grandfather and maternal fifth great-grandfather fought in the American Revolution. One was from Virginia and was a Revolutionary corporal, while the other was from Georgia and was a Revolutionary soldier.

“I say independence is still a vision in progress because while progress has been made towards true freedom, as a nation we are still a work in progress to achieve this goal,” the Caledonia resident said.

Campbell has been a member of the Detroit Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution since 2010. There are 3,517 members statewide as of Jan. 1. While service organizations across the country are facing declining membership for various reasons, DAR officials said they have actually bucked that trend in Michigan. Membership has increased 5 percent over the past five years, according to state regent Dawn Brady. And a new chapter recently opened in Sault Ste. Marie while another is preparing to form in Rockford, just outside Grand Rapids.

DAR members point to a number of factors for the small increase, including a focus on recruiting family members as new members and an increased interest in genealogy. Some said the nation’s upcoming 250th anniversary, which falls on July 4, 2026, has likely increased interest in the organization, along with the group’s focus on community service.

Still, organizations have to evolve, said Campbell, who is black. The Daughters of the American Revolution did not accept African-American members in modern times until the 1970s.

“We must continue to grow, evolve and recruit new members,” he said.

As the Fourth of July holiday approaches, it is a time of gratitude and reflection for many DAR members. Many went last week to the annual DAR convention, called the Continental Congress, in Washington, D.C. Others stayed home but plan to celebrate the holiday with family or friends. And at least one chapter, the Ypsilanti chapter, will participate in its local Fourth of July parade.

Janet Calabrese, regent of the Alexander Macomb DAR Chapter in Mount Clemens, said that every day, not just on the Fourth of July, she is “so thankful for what we have.”

“I appreciate what I can enjoy today… because if it wasn’t for those people who fought for our freedoms back then, we wouldn’t have what we have here today,” Calabrese said.

Attracting new members, genealogy

Founded in 1890, DAR is a women’s service organization dedicated to “promoting patriotism, preserving American history and securing America’s future through better education for children,” according to its website. To become a member, a woman must prove she is directly descended from a “patriot” of the American Revolution — someone who fought in the war or contributed to the American cause in some other way, said Sarah B.H. Helferich, regent of the DAR’s Stoney Creek chapter in Rochester.

Helferich said the Stoney Creek chapter has about 150 members, making it one of the largest chapters in the state. The chapter has found that the best way to get new members is through family members of current members, encouraging sisters, daughters or seniors to join the organization.

Another way the chapter attracts members is by being visible in the community and performing acts of service. Helferich said they have collected food for the food pantry and essential items for the women of HAVEN, a women’s shelter in Oakland County.

Emily Salvette, vice regent of the DAR’s Sarah Caswell Angell Chapter in Ann Arbor, said there is also a “pretty strong interest” in genealogy. Many historical records are now online, making it easier for people to research their family history, Salvette said. People contact the DAR for help with their research, and the organization also hosts genealogy workshops.

“We have a good, stable membership that has been growing, and we are very happy about that,” Salvette said.

She said her organization’s regular meetings are on Thursday afternoons, but they also try to do activities on the weekends, which younger people can attend. The chapter has about 115 members, about 20 of whom are under 35. She said the chapter tries to keep them involved.

“But… they’re busy people, you know, especially if they have a career and kids,” Salvette said. “It’s a very busy time of life. It really is, and we understand that.”

Service groups like Kiwanis and the Jaycees have struggled with declining membership across the United States. Kiwanis membership has plummeted 60 percent over the past two decades, while Jaycees membership has declined 64 percent, according to some estimates.

In Ypsilanti, the city’s DAR chapter, which participates in community events such as the Fourth of July parade and Ypsilanti’s bicentennial celebration in 2023, has seen membership decline slightly in recent years as some members have recently passed away, said chapter regent Elizabeth Heller. However, the chapter also has 13 prospective members, who are working with the chapter to verify their genealogy, she said.

Heller said DAR applicants use historical records to prove descent from a patriot. Some examples include death, birth and marriage certificates, census records, Bible records and headstones in cemeteries. Women who have a relative in the DAR can reference their relative on their application and reference their relative’s genealogy. Heller noted that chapters help women with genealogical research.

Last year, a new chapter was started in southeast Michigan: the Detroit chapter. It was spearheaded by Elizabeth Findeis, a daughter of the American Revolution who moved to Detroit in 2010. She said she gathered a group of people together and founded the chapter.

As a way to recruit new members, the chapter will give talks to women’s organizations in the city, said Campbell, who chairs the Detroit chapter’s membership committee. The talks will explain who the group is, what it does and why a woman should join the organization. Campbell said the chapter is also interested in hosting genealogy workshops.

Brady, the state regent, said another chapter, the Bawating-Le Saut De Sainte Marie chapter in Sault Ste. Marie, was organized in June, bringing the total number of chapters in the state to 54. A chapter is also beginning to organize in the Rockford area.

How DAR remains relevant today

The Daughters of the American Revolution used to be restricted to white women. The organization accepted its first black member in 1977: Karen Batchelor of Detroit. Campbell said African Americans, Native Americans and people of other races are now part of the DAR.

“Now we’ve managed to connect with a whole different race of people and ethnicities who can be a part of this,” Campbell said. “I think what we’ve done is amazing and I think we just need to keep that kind of energy going.”

The emergence of DNA ancestry tools, such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA, has also helped keep DAR relevant, Helferich said.

“People not only wanted to know that they were, say, 34% Slavic, but they also wanted to know who those people were,” he said.

Helferich said these tools keep people interested in what the DAR does because the organization can help them learn about their ancestors.

Heller, of the Ypsilanti chapter, said the DAR’s goals — education, patriotism and historic preservation — are “very relevant” to society. The chapter, like DAR chapters across the country, has what it calls a good citizens program. It nominates several local high school students as “good citizens” and then chooses a winner from among the candidates for a scholarship.

‘I do my part’

As July 4 approaches, Salvette, of the Sarah Caswell Angell Chapter, said she is proud to be descended from people who felt it was important to establish “a place where people could make decisions for themselves, govern themselves and live their lives the way they wanted to.”

“I’m very proud to be descended from people who helped make this happen,” she said.

Salvette said Americans have a right to life, liberty and property, and that those who came to the American colonies often did not have those rights in their home countries. He said he has Huguenot ancestors, Protestants who were persecuted by the French government. He said he is also descended from Germans, who were forced to participate in wars and had their property taken away.

Campbell, a Grand Rapids-area resident, said two of his ancestors fought against “unfair treatment of America” ​​during the revolution. However, he said “the fight doesn’t end there,” as was evident in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

“I do my part and I hope that others do theirs too,” he said.

As a DAR member and an African-American woman, Campbell said, “That same vigor and determination that my ancestors had for independence from Great Britain, I have to see that all people have the same freedom that the Declaration of Independence speaks of.”

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