Education. Preservation. Genealogy. Patriotism. Those are some of the objectives and characteristics of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Celebrating 125 years in 2015, the organization was founded on October 11, 1890, according to its website, “during a time that was marked by a revival in patriotism and intense interest in the beginnings of the United States of America.”
Then, as now, the objectives include Historical, perpetuating the memory of the men and women who achieved American Independence; Educational, increasing the public’s knowledge, and Patriotic, cherishing and maintaining the institutions of American freedom. “It is a patriotic organization,” says Jeanne Dooley, a former regent (basically, president) of the Col. William Preston Chapter in Roanoke and currently the Membership PMD (Prospective Member Database) Vice Chair for District VII at the state level. “No politics are involved. We support the United States, veterans and members of the armed forces and their families.”
The Col. William Preston Chapter is one of 123 in Virginia and one of seven in the immediate Roanoke area.
Dooley’s state position is a perfect one for her. She says she is “enthralled by the genealogy” part of the DAR. “I’m eager to find more patriots in my family.” Patriots are the men and women who helped the effort during the Revolutionary War. They were not necessarily soldiers. One of Dooley’s ancestors was a widow who supplied the troops with 400 pounds of beef. Those types of patriots are harder to find, she says, adding that prospective members almost need to rely on family lore to start the journey.
Her fascination with genealogy began almost by accident. She was at a Fall Forum several years ago and attended a workshop on the subject. “I went home and joined Ancestry.com.” She says the advent of websites like Ancestry makes the search for family patriots easier. Before that, prospective members needed to rely on family bibles, courthouses, churches, cemeteries and, even, the NSDAR’s own library. The process can take years. She notes that even with Ancestry, the prospective member needs to have a document linking her with her patriot.
Dooley, who also serves as the District VII Chaplain, calls the DAR “a feel good organization. You go into a room, and everyone has a common goal. There is a kinship – you feel like you belong.” But, she worries about attracting younger members and keeping the organization relevant to them.
Chapters in larger cities have “junior members,” who are between the ages of 18 and 40, Dooley says, and they are starting to step into leadership roles. She said there also is a need to accommodate members and to meet when they can attend. Nancy Canova, also a past regent with Col. William Preston, noted that four of the local chapters meet at the same time – 11 am on the first Friday of the month. Both women say that some chapters have been varying the meeting times a couple of times a year and are seeing success. But, says Dooley, the long-standing meeting time has become a tradition for older members and a complete change would be hard. “We’re like their family.”
Dooley sees the need for change and accommodation in her membership duties. “We have to help women prove their lineage if we want new members.” She added that it is easier to join these days. “You don’t have to prove you are DAR-worthy, you just have to have a patriot.” Part of her job includes matching prospective members with the location and meeting times of the chapters that suit them.
Lest one thinks the DAR is just women meeting for lunch, the organization has welcomed more than 950,000 members since its founding in 1890. It also has a very large presence in Washington, DC. The headquarters take up an entire city block and is one of the world’s largest buildings of its kind owned and maintained exclusively by women. The DAR’s Constitution Hall is the largest concert hall in Washington, D.C., seats up to 3,702 people and has been the site of concerts, award shows and other events.
But the DAR is more than buildings. There is a nation initiative called “Service to America,” where DAR members are encouraged to serve their communities and record their volunteer hours, says Dr. Judith Hess Jones of Blacksburg, the District VII Director. The volunteer activities must be those done beyond the DAR, she said, adding that nationally, members logged more than 12 million hours last year.
While each chapter has its own projects, Jones said the district funds several. (District includes 16 chapters from Botetourt County to Martinsville, and Bedford County to Blacksburg.) The projects include Smithfield Plantation in Blacksburg (once the home of Col. William Preston), the Good Citizens Award for High School Students, holiday wreaths for the 700 graves at the Southwest Virginia Veterans Cemetery in Dublin, and involvement in local naturalization ceremonies.
Jones says that, to her, the DAR is embodied in the three objectives: educational, historical and patriotic. “That’s why I joined.”