Genealogy Fans Find Joy in Solving the Mysteries of History

By Guest Contributor December 15, 2008 10:36

Brenda Hix (left) and Lori East at the genealogical library in Sonora./Photo by Suzy Hopkins

By Patricia Harrelson

Brenda Hix remembers her grandmother as a private person who didn’t share much about her background.

“We knew she had been married several times, but she never talked about her birth family,” recalls Hix, 63, a retired bank employee and longtime Tuolumne resident. That silence got her to wondering, and wondering led her to delve into public records, which turned up some surprises.

“My mother thought that Grandmother had three siblings, but it turns out there were nine,” says Hix.

From those newly discovered branches of the family tree sprang a passion for family history. Hix has since written a book about her relatives, and volunteers with the Tuolumne County Genealogical Society to help others solve their own family mysteries.

Provocative questions often motivate such research. When someone passes away and the family sorts through the estate, questions often crop up about mementos and documents: a letter, a deed of trust, or a picture with a name and date. Who is this person writing to Granddad? Who’s the third person on this deed? Who is this man named James pictured with Grandmother?

“Finding something unusual starts a person wondering,” says Lori East, a bookkeeper and 30-year Jamestown resident who is also a county genealogical society member.

East, 52, was bit by the family history bug eight years ago while sorting through boxes from her in-laws’ estate. She was fascinated by what she found: her husband’s grandmother, Ruby East, was a Jamestown store owner in the 1930s. “I also found marriage and birth certificates for people I’d never heard about,” East says.

That kicked off more research – which, by the way, never ends.

“You never finish your family genealogy,” East says, “because you keep making new discoveries.”

Tuolumne County is fortunate to have two well-staffed agencies eager to help researchers. The genealogical society and the Sonora Family History Center both welcome visitors, who can use all of the resources for free. Though the two agencies offer similar help, including subscriptions to many genealogy web sites, they each have unique offerings.

The genealogical society’s resources are especially helpful if you are looking for an ancestor who lived in Tuolumne County between 1849 and 1930.

The Sonora Family History Center is a branch of the world’s largest genealogical library – the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, founded by The Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints in 1894 – and has access to all of the material available there.

Formulating a question is the first step in successful research.  Suppose you stumble upon a picture of your great-grandfather, who died when you were a child. You recognize a likeness to yourself that piques your curiosity, but the relatives who might be able to answer your questions have all died. How can you learn more?

You can take your question to either agency. To get started, a staff member will have you fill out a form with pertinent information about your family – names, dates and places. Say you know your great-grandfather’s full name and that he was born in Texas. You also know he died in 1955 when he was about 61.

With this information, you can log onto a computer at the history center, and you’re on your way. United States Census Bureau reports are an excellent starting point for researchers because they describe a great deal of information about families at a certain point in time. Census data is available from 1790 through 1930 (privacy laws preclude access to more recent data). Plugging your information into the search criteria for a given census will result in a list of names with birth dates and places.

“This is when you become a detective,” says Isabelle MacLean Drown, 74, a volunteer at the Sonora Family History Center whose 40-year passion for genealogy led her to write two books.

The second step in your research is to look for clues that will help identify one of the people on the list as your relative. For instance, you may recognize another piece of information in the data:  a name, like Aunt Pearl, or an occupation, like blacksmith.

“You might have to wade through a lot of records before you find the right one,” says Drown.

Vital records – birth and death certificates, along with marriage licenses and certificates– are central to all such research. Examining these records is the third step in locating traces of a lost story. Genealogy newcomers often spend three or four hours a day following leads.

“Once you find that first piece of information, it’s addicting,” says East.

A thrill follows each discovery – whether you are learning when your ancestors arrived in the New World, finding a famous relation, or identifying a previously unknown living relative. Later, when genealogy turns into a full-blown hobby, there are other rewards. Part of the fun is the relationships that develop, according to Hix and East. Each year, local genealogical society members travel together to Salt Lake City to conduct research at the world-renowned library Mormon library.

Genealogy is about sharing information. The curiosity that initiates the research is satisfied by persistence and talking to other people. The quickest way to make progress is to connect with folks who have more experience – ask for help whenever you need it, these experts advise, and be willing to share some of your great discoveries.

© 2008, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Guest Contributor December 15, 2008 10:36
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