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Genealogy Research: A Path on a Life-Long Quest

by Sandi Smith

"Guess what? I'm researching our family tree," said my sister, Robin. She had just bought a laptop and I thought she was trying to find a project to justify the expense. I wasn't too excited. Then as she kept running into dead ends, I began to realize how little I know about my family or where we came from. The real surprise was that I developed an interest in genealogy.
      I was born and raised in Silicon Valley where average Californians are so nouveau they  pretend not to care where their family came from, or who they are. We are rugged individuals, we say, our success based strictly on personal merit. That is no great surprise considering that California pioneers* came to the edge of a continent looking for something new and better, but I've discovered a longing for a place in history that is more than a few decades old.
      This could explain my interest in traveling to countries that have ancient memories. I thought that in other cultures I might find something important--a place in time and history--and an understanding of where people came from and where they are going.  At the least, that knowledge should provide a roadmap of possibilities.
      It's those possibilities that I am looking for in my past. After a lifetime of marriage, and raising children, and simply surviving, I now have the luxury of time to think about other things. My children are grown and settled, I am divorced and I have questions to ask my ancestors with no way to get answers. I try to discover my place in this new world where it seems we must move and think quickly, or eat the dust of those passing us by.
      I read somewhere that today we can expect to have an average of three to five completely different careers in our lifetimes. I would add that we must figure out how to continually reinvent ourselves in the never-ending process of becoming stronger and smarter to make it happen. Genealogy research is one path on that life-long quest. It can become a voyage of self-discovery as a way to determine the kinds of things you want to know and, more important, what you want others to know about you.
      Robin and I make a good team. She does all the hard work of gathering and documenting available information and keeping it organized. She began by questioning older family members. But because we got a late start and have no journals or oral traditions, we don't have access to the stories to give history personal meaning. And there is no one left who can tell these stories.
      Most of the puzzle pieces are turned facedown with disconnected bits of information clamoring for attention. Tracing family history means becoming a detective as knowledge is assembled from small clues and the clues interweave with intuitive and educated guesswork.
      That's the part I like best. I am more interested in historical perspective and stories than proof, although I'm delighted every time my sister comes up with something new. And I begin to acknowledge that one day, my children or some future relative will have the same kinds of questions for which I now have no answers.
      If I don't put some memories together, my children will never know that my mother taught me how to dance the mashed potatoes back in the sixties; or that I liked to write when I was very young; or that Uncle Bernard followed me to school one day on his tricycle, or that he hid behind the couch when scary movies were on television. They wouldn't believe I once was shy, or that I stood on a San Francisco street corner in front of City Lights Bookstore and kissed my boyfriend in a misty rain. They might like to know that I was a sophomore in high school when John Kennedy was assassinated and a Physical Education teacher made fun of a young friend who couldn't stop crying. These small incidents are unimportant to strangers, but you can never know what connection they might establish with someone many years from now looking to validate their own relativity.
      Connections. That's what I am looking for. An unbroken chain to all the yesterdays, through me and my children, into distant tomorrows. So I look at a picture of the SS Darmstadt, launched in 1890, as I write these words. I feel melancholy, yet hopeful. You might be surprised that a grainy, black and white photocopy of a ship could arouse any emotion, but my mother's father began a journey from Czechoslovakia to the United States on this ship in 1901. He was 10 years old. Finding the picture is exhilarating, but adds little to our meager store of knowledge.
      A faint trail be can be traced through Otto Blahut's life by reviewing official records--naturalization papers, death certificate, marriage license, and social security application. These documents offer facts and say nothing about what kind of dreams and fears entered the country with the boy, or how the man lived.
      I attempt some research about what was happening in 1901: The Pan-American Exhibition was held in Buffalo, N.Y.  The great Indian warriar, Geronimo,  was on exhibit; President McKinley was assassinated, Roosevelt became President; Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany said, "In spite of the fact that we have no such fleet as we should have, we have conquered for ourselves a place in the sun"; President Theodore Roosevelt's First Annual State of the Union Message outlined his goals of forest conservation and preservation (including the use of forest reserves as wildlife preserves), and the need for government-sponsored irrigation projects in the arid West.
      It was only a few short years before Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated in Bosnia in 1914, and the world was plunged into WWI. Why did that young boy leave Czechoslovakia? Who did he leave with? He was in his early twenties during WWI--did he enlist? It saddens me that we might never know.
      My intent is to encourage you to begin giving voice to your particular story based on your observations and what you have learned. Take this opportunity to think about how you want to be remembered and what advice you might like to pass on to future generations. It isn't necessary to write an exposé--although you might want to do so. Or you can simply portray events in chronological order. It's your decision.
      I'm grateful my sister is researching our family tree. This continues to be an incredible and rewarding experience and an amazing gift enabling me to learn about others and gain knowledge of myself in the process.
      Here are some ways you can begin making a contribution to your family's story.

How to Help Other Family Members with Their Research
      At the beginning of this article, I explained how difficult it is to put a family history together when little information is known. Whether or not you are personally interested in the subject you can create a priceless gift for future generations and have some fun in the process. Some day, your son or daughter, or a great-great grandchild will want to know who you were, and what were your parents and grandparents like.
       The method you use to tell your stories can range from the elaborate to the simple.

  • Buy a beautiful blank journal and begin at the beginning, writing your earliest memories. Be sure to include stories about other family members, particularly parents and grandparents. It doesn't have to be perfectly written, it's the stories and relationships that are important. Put yourself on a schedule where you commit to at least one or two pages per week. There are web sites devoted to journaling that might be of interest to you.
  • Create a memory album. Craft stores are full of materials to help you design these works of art and I've included some web sites to give you some ideas to get started. This type of project allows your imagination and creativity free reign. If you're lucky, you'll have photos of your parents and grandparents to start, the then carry your life forward in pictures and copies of documents such as birth certificates, marriage license, etc. Maybe you'll enjoy the process enough to put albums together representing your children's lives.
  • If the above suggestions sound too much like work, then sit down with a tape recorder for a couple of hours a week and talk about your experiences.
How to Begin Your Own Research
      Robin considers the Internet to be her best tool. However, you can't assume the information is accurate, so confirming documentation is imperative. She uses the latest technology to excavate the past and discover who we are and where we came from.  I like the symmetry of that.  As a bonus, she has located cousins we haven't talked to in more than thirty years.
      There are a few things you can do before you jump on the Internet:
  • Create a chart with the family relations you already know. Make a rough chart or use one of the many software packages available. You'll quickly discover where you need to fill in the blanks. Robin uses the following software, a quick web search will find many more:  Broderbund 's Family Tree Maker, Sierra Generations Family Tree.
  • Contact all your older relatives to discover what information they have. Spend some time with them and ask for stories of their youth and other family members. Request copies of letters or anything else they might have to share.
  • Let other family members know what you are doing and request copies of appropriate records to validate your research. Here is a list of documents and the kind of information you can expect to find in them:
               1.  Birth Certificates all can have different information but    basically can provide parent¹s names including mother¹s maiden name, address, parent¹s ages at child's birth, where they were born, occupations, and county of birth. Obtain from relatives, if possible. If you know the county and state of birth--request from either County or State.
                2. Marriage Licenses can provide information about ages at marriage,  and city and county where they live. You pretty much have to know where marriage took place, but you can work with some assumptions: try city and county where you were born. You can make informed guesses about dates backtracking from eldest child¹s date of birth.
                3. Application for Social Security account number are available upon the death of the parties (Freedom of Information Act) and can provide details about female relative¹s maiden name, where they lived, date and place of birth, and parent¹s names including mother¹s maiden name.
               4.  Death Certificates can provide full name, date of death, date and place of birth, name and birth place of father and mother, citizenship, marital status, place died, where buried, occupation. Also cause of death.
              5. Probate Records can be found generally at county level in county courthouse, with access on microfilm. You can find information about wills that will provide relatives names and/or names of close friends with potential information about the family, inventories, dowers, receipts, and newspaper postings.
              6. Military Records - you usually have to know the branch of service and company name.
              7. Immigration and Naturalization Records  - Immigration records start in 1820, but towns of origin weren¹t recorded until the 1890's.
              8. Religious records: Baptisms, naming ceremonies, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, marriages, and burials. County histories will often include histories of first established churches, sometimes name the minister and parishioners.

       There are many excellent web sites that explain the basics of genealogy research. Here are a couple of sites to get you started; both sites offer how-to tips and contain links to other resources:;
I can't list all of the excellent sites available for research, but the following are Robin's favorites.

Begin Today to Participate in Establishing a Future Legacy
     I'm grateful my sister is recreating our family history because I believe we are diminished when our past disappears without a trace. As a side effect, Robin and I are meeting various family members on the Internet for the first time and relinking with old friends. That may be reason enough to continue the work.
      But I find the more intangible rewards to be more fulfilling. For instance, today we discovered that my grandfather¹s family most likely sympathized with the Union during the Civil War because their names were on the Arkansas voter rolls in 1867. Confederates weren¹t allowed to vote after the war. Detective work and educated guesses--not a fact yet. We are pretty sure my grandmother's family was Confederate. Now, that's interesting.


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