Ray Walters cannot really talk about the impact of discovering his Cayman roots. Just the thought of expressing it chokes him up.
“It’s emotional,” said Mr. Walters, 78, of Denham Springs, Louisiana.
His father, William Lemuel Watler, was just 12 years old when he took a position as a cabin boy on a dredging boat. After some years at sea and a stint in the U.S. Army, serving in World War I, he landed in Louisiana where, through a series of procedural circumstances, his last name of Watler was changed to Walters.
William died when Ray was 12, and it was not until Ray visited the island 14 years ago and was able to meet Otto Watler that his family history began to take shape.
Since that time, he and his family have teamed up with Cayman Connection UK, an agency that provides orientation and support services for Caymanians traveling to or moving to the U.K. and vice versa. Cayman Connection UK also has a genealogy project that is gathering historical and lineage information on the Watler and Bodden families.
“The idea of a cultural link has always been there,” said Kate Kandiah, a Cayman native and one of Cayman Connection’s founders. “I’m fascinated with the links between a Caribbean Island that’s so small and the UK.”
The plan, she said, is to start with the two original families.
“We’ll see how we go with this one first,” she said.
The project has drawn responses from 150 people in the U.K. and more beyond, including the Louisiana Walters.
Kari Walters, 54, is Ray’s daughter. She is the most enthusiastic researcher and has traced numerous branches of the family tree. She has identified more than 8,000 people as part of the Watler/Walters family. She was one of 10 family members who were in Cayman last week for vacation and to do some additional work on family history.
“We spent a lot of time in the cemeteries with a camera,” Ms. Walters said. “I went to the Watler’s Cemetery and Spotts and Bodden Town.”
Freaky things can happen in cemeteries. Cayman is no exception. Ms. Walters said one of the images she captured was that of a photograph on a grave of a distant Watler relative. “It could have been my brother,” she said. “It was uncanny how much they resembled each other.”
The family said it had received a trove of background information and interesting stories about the Watler clan from Otto Watler. They also met with Olivaire Watler who has done a significant amount of genealogical research, including DNA testing.
Olivaire said he began delving into family history when he was expecting his first child, about 16 years ago. His initial source was Phoebe Watler Spence, who was then in her 90s.
“She was able to take me back about 200 years,” Olivaire said, “and I have to say, she was pretty accurate.”
He’s been able to use shipping records in Jamaica and the United States to glean information on his ancestors. DNA testing has pointed to connections in Scotland and a smaller group in Germany. He believes the original family may have come from Germany to Scotland several hundred years ago when there was an influx of merchants.
The information, he said, helps illuminate the family history. Some of the data is broad and still uncertain. But it can also get very personal.
Ray Walters has come to understand how much of his Cayman heritage his father retained. He was an expert carpenter, using skills he first acquired while at sea. He also encouraged the kids to drink coconut water when it was available and he would not cook with anything other than coconut oil.
“He would not cook with lard,” Mr. Walters said. “When mom went into the hospital to deliver, he’d go buy coconut oil and cook for us. And he was a good cook.”
The Cayman connections he’s made, he said, have helped him answer a lot of questions he never had the chance to ask his father.
“A lot of things he told me, a lot of things he did and the way he did it, you understand it,” he said. “It’s been a lot of satisfaction.”
Olivaire Watler said the Cayman Connection project that has helped connect the families is important.
“It just becomes more real to us who these people were and how they shaped Cayman into what it is today,” he said.