When Erin Stoesz was 10 years old, she found a shoe box of old letters in her grandmother’s closet.
It was a series of correspondence between John Hull and his wife, Mary, during the Civil War. While Mary was tending their farm in Indiana, 40-year-old John was traveling across the South during the war with a volunteer infantry.
“I immediately thought this was something that needed to be treasured,” Stoesz said.
She started transcribing the letters, and with the help of her grandmother, Stoesz used pins and a map to trace Hull’s journey across the U.S.
“He marched all over the place,” Stoesz said.
She dug deeper into her family’s history and eventually discovered Mary’s grandfather, William Phillips, who lived in North Carolina during the American Revolution and swore an oath of allegiance to the new government.
Later, Stoesz’s mother found another connection to the Revolution in Thomas Merchant, a Connecticut resident who served as a private in the new American military.
Those ancestors made her eligible for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, a service organization open to women who can prove lineal descent from a patriot of the American Revolution.
“It’s very exciting to find a patriot, and it’s not easy,” Stoesz said. “We had to trace our family history, and not just find them, but find birth records, death records, marriage certificates and wills to prove a single relationship from us going back to our patriot.”
The quest to confirm a Revolutionary War connection also meant family trips in a motor home to Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky.
“We walked through cemeteries and spent days in courthouses and archives,” she said.
For many in DAR, membership is a family tradition passed down from mother to daughter.
Stoesz’s entry to the group was different.
In 2002, an 18-year-old Stoesz and her mom became the first in their immediate family to join DAR.
Joining as an 18-year-old isn’t exactly the norm, Stoesz acknowledges.
“It does tend to attract a lot of older women who aren’t so busy with families and careers,” she said.
Now 35, Stoesz was nominated this year as one of eight national finalists for DAR’s Outstanding Junior contest for her service to the organization and community.
The Outstanding Junior title is awarded each year to one DAR member aged 18-35 who makes “vital contributions” to furthering the goals of the organization.
Stoesz attended DAR’s national convention in June. On stage at the DAR’s historic Constitution Hall — which, with a capacity of 3,702, boasts the largest auditorium in Washington, D.C. — Stoesz held hands with the other seven finalists as she was named the 2018 Outstanding Junior.
“You have no idea that you’re the national winner or the national runner up until it’s announced on stage,” she said. “I thought I was going to fall through the stage floor. … I had to give a speech and I have no idea what I said. I think I broke protocol when I hugged the president general.”
Stoesz is the first Wyoming DAR member to have earned the honor.
She’s a consulting geologist lecturing at the University of Wyoming, the Wyoming State Science Fair director, and a violinist in the UW Symphony Orchestra.
She started becoming more active in DAR after first attending the state convention in 2006.
“I liked the organization because of the history,” she said. “If you have those roots that go back to the founding of this country, I think it’s important to document it and remember that.”
Eventually, Stoesz’s transcriptions of John Hull’s Civil War letters and the accompanying genealogy were published in a book now housed at the DAR library in Washington.
Stoesz is now also working on adding to DAR’s genealogy records by indexing and transcribing information from muster rolls, pension funds and other Revolutionary War documents.
That work, she said, should “make more patriots’ names accessible to people who potentially want to find their ancestors.”
DAR’s Genealogical Research Database is one of the premier genealogical libraries in the county, Stoesz said. Members of the public can search that database, as well as the Patriot Records Index, at www.dar.org.
Currently halfway through a two-year term as head of the roughly 30-member Laramie DAR chapter, Stoesz has also had two other state DAR positions, four local chapter positions and has chaired different DAR committees.
“I like inspiring people to do the service and (leadership roles) are a good way to do it,” Stoesz said.
In recent years, she’s spent 30-40 hours each month dedicated to DAR-related activities.
“There are certain times of the year that it’s all I’m doing,” she said.
The Laramie chapter participates in Freedom Has a Birthday, gives medals to ROTC cadets, runs conservation projects around Laramie and places monuments around Albany County recognizing local history.
The chapter is currently growing heirloom varieties of produce to taste-test “colonial recipes.” Stoesz said the chapter is also selling the seeds to help fund DAR service activities.
“The breadth of the organization is really wonderful,” she said. “We all have a common bond because we can all trace our bloodline back to a patriot, but whatever your interest area is, there’s probably something do within the organization to contribute. I hope to carry on the mentoring tradition for the gals who are 18 and just joining and to be welcoming and teach them what I know. And I’m always learning from ladies who have been members for 50 years.”