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Digging for Family Roots


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For generations, elders told stories around the campfire, and later, around the dining room table. Then in 1977, author Alex Haley spun his own family tale which he called "Roots" (ISBN 0-8161-6639-0). Many who watched were fascinated and began to wonder where they came from, too. And genealogy, once a science pursued by dull old men in musty old libraries, was suddenly in vogue as Americans sought to put their lives in perspective.

Since the airing of "Roots," dozens of genealogy societies have sprung up as more people than ever before search for their own roots. One researcher said it's truly a disease, a consuming passion. Reconstructing a family tree out of bits and pieces from scattered sources is a lot of work. But all it takes is that one special find to get you hooked. You may even find a document or letter written by one of your ancestors and then you get goosebumps. You feel a real tie with those people who lived so long ago. It makes you feel like you have a link with history.

First-time searchers start with a pedigree chart, a modified family tree that can be fleshed out by questioning family members, checking out the family Bible, combing family birth and marriage records. Then, with that data on the most recent three or four generations, there's usually enough information to start the real work of researching. Some will discover heroes among their ancestors. Others will unearth bad blood. Often they will find a little bit of both dangling from their family trees.

As in the case of Walter, some will find facts that, whether they like it or not, will turn old family legends into mere myths. He said he had an ancestor who, as a corporal, went with King Charles XII of Sweden to fight Peter the Great. Walter's wife thought her family was related to Mary Todd Lincoln, but research proved them wrong. Now his brother-in-law won't speak to him.

While family tales may spark the curiosity of some genealogists, others are intrigued by what's been left out of family stories. Jan only knew that her father was raised in an orphanage. After a long search, she learned that her father's mother died of tuberculosis in 1904 after giving birth to a fourth son; the baby died a month later. Her railroad-worker husband saw no way to care for his three older sons, so he put them in an orphanage and was never heard from again.

The thirst for more family data sent Jan and her husband on a 14,000 mile trip around the US to towns where they believed their ancestors once lived. They walked through cemeteries and read gravestones. They learned that her husband had two Mayflower ancestors and a Salem witch. But it was difficult to trace her own ancestors because everything was burned during the Civil War.

Another couple was lured into the hunt for their ancestors by two weathered pieces of paper. While attending her grandmother's funeral, a relative handed Nillah two certificates from a western Pennsylvania cemetery. She and her husband decided to take a trip to see who was buried in the two plots. At the cemetery they found a couple of volunteers from the local historical society cataloguing genealogical information. After overhearing Nillah and her husband discussing the two certificates they were investigating, one of the women told Nillah: "I think my husband and you are cousins." It turned out that Nillah's great- grandmother was buried in one of the plots and a friend of the family who lived with them in her old age was buried there, too. That brief sleuthing got this couple hooked on finding more about their ancestors. They now volunteer at a genealogy society library.

Experts warn beginners to make sure the sources they use are accurate ones. Some older biographies weren't very particular where they grabbed their ancestors from. There is also a company which promises to sell people the complete history of their family for $25 to $50. But what buyers receive is a handsomely bound book containing photocopies of pages from old telephone directories or street directories, some with general information from school textbooks about German, Italian, Irish or other large groups of immigrants. The U. S. Postal Service inspectors are on the trail of this company which changes its name and moves around.

Some researchers lose their enthusiasm at the first hint of bad news - illegitimate children, a relative with a tendency toward thievery - which puts an end to their research. They're afraid of finding bad things. If you can't open your mind, you can't look any farther. Maybe a few generations on, there was a saint. You have to go through the bad to find the good.

As difficult as tracing family history is, it may be even more difficult for future generations because more women are keeping their maiden name after marriage, more single women are adopting children, more children are being born of surrogate mothers and single women are even turning to sperm banks so they can have children. All that's going to be a nightmare to trace in a few generations, but people will still want to know.

Some excerpts from L.A. Times

June Pelo

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