Finding Your Roots: Tasty Clues to Heritage

Isabelle MacLean Drown
By Isabelle MacLean Drown September 15, 2009 08:00

Chocolate gravy … holopchi … taties … beaver tails. What do the foregoing have in common and how on earth could they be clues to your ancestry?

At family gatherings, big or small, conversation usually gets around to “remember when…” and then the words that were common in your particular family begin to surface. These are great clues to ethnic origin. If your grandma served you chocolate gravy on homemade hot biscuits, it’s a pretty good bet she learned southern cooking and either lived in the southern states or her parents did. If you know that holopchi is cabbage rolls, then you probably have some Ukrainian blood flowing in your veins.

When grandpa asked you to “pass the taties” and you gave him the bowl of potatoes, you were familiar with the Scots tongue. And beaver tails – sometimes called elephant ears – are fried bread-dough treats from the prairie folks, both in the United States and Canada.

There are so many clues to help us. Take the lowly button box. There was a time when a garment was worn out, that it was a must to cut the buttons off before it was discarded (and then it was probably made into pieces for a quilt or rag rug). There may be a button box sitting in your attic or basement. Perhaps it contains a button from a uniform. There are books of various regimental button designs, which can help track down the regiment, and rank of your ancestor. Two good websites to explore are and Make sure you bring along a magnifying glass: those regimental mess buttons are pretty wee.

Turning to local history, Brian Greene, librarian at Columbia College, gave me a tour of their holdings pertaining to genealogy research. Many one-of-a-kind local histories are there for your perusal, along with an impressive collection of historical newspapers. Brian notes that some of the collection overlaps that of the Tuolumne County Library newspaper collection, but between both of them, we have a wonderful resource.

For example, the college holds the Alta California (San Francisco) from 1849! And the Placer Times (Sacramento) from 1849!! In all, there are 22 historical newspapers on microfilm ready for you to check for birth, marriage and death announcements. I was invited to view their local histories on Tuolumne County (shelf number F868) and then told I could have a library card – free – to check them out. Now that appealed to my Scottish blood.

Most interesting was their collection of oral histories. Richard Dyer taught a class in oral history in the 1970s and many of those taped local histories are now being digitized, and are available to library patrons. I was impressed with their efforts to preserve our local history. If you want to check their catalog, go online to or call 588-5119 and ask for Brian, who says he will be happy to help you.

Q: My mother’s maiden name was Egger and I know we came from Eggers, Arkansas in the 1940s and settled first in Sugar Pine. I would like to know more about that line of my ancestry.
– Edna Edmonds Barajas, Sonora

Dear Edna – I had never heard of chocolate gravy until I talked with you. Mmmm good!

Using the information you gave me, I was able to pull up census records for each generation. You said that William E. Egger, Sr. had a brother, James. In searching the Immigration and Emigration records, I found reference to a ship’s Capt. James Egger; but more than that, I found an Egger arriving in 1725 in Carolina, where you say that William E. was recorded. Most of the passenger information about the Eggers states they were either from Switzerland, specifically the Cantons of Bern and Basel. I would begin by looking for records in Carolina, land records in particular. Your Egger ancestors were of hardy stock to travel by wagon train from Mississippi to Arkansas and must have been very worthy to have the town, Eggers, named for them. I hope this helps a bit.

Until next time, good luck with your research.

Email Isabelle at, or write to her at FAN, 171 N. Washington St., Suite A, Sonora, CA 95370.

Isabelle MacLean Drown
By Isabelle MacLean Drown September 15, 2009 08:00
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