Finding Your Roots: Celebrating Family Historians

Isabelle MacLean Drown
By Isabelle MacLean Drown June 15, 2015 19:28

writing with quill“Sennachie” is a Scottish term meaning family storyteller, historian and genealogist.

Almost every family in every nation has at least one. In Denmark, for example, they are called familie historiker and in Italy, famiglia storicord. They are usually self-appointed – often because no one else in the family has any interest beyond hearing stories about distant relatives’ escapades.

When a family history question comes up, you’ll likely be told that Auntie So-and-So would know or Uncle Somebody has all of that in his head or for sure Grandma has the records.

Without these family historians, what would genealogists do? We would merely have names, dates and places – just ink on paper. It takes a sennachie to breathe life into those names, to lift them off the paper. With a sennachie’s help, they become real people – some heroes, some scoundrels, but real people. These stories help us identify with them and better know ourselves. After all, we do carry their genes.

Let’s take a look at the Dambachers, a well-known Tuolumne County pioneer family. Who is their sennachie? My first stop for clues was Tuolumne County’s Carlo De Ferrari Archive, where archivist Charlie Dyer quickly produced a file that was chock-full of newspaper clippings.

The reports followed the family over many years, starting with John Henry Dambacher and his wife, Barbara Klein Dambacher, who in the 1850s were the first of the family to settle in this area. They had eight children. Their son Charles, who married Louise Bixel, becomes even more real when we see his signature on a mining claim dated April 21, 1888… “about eight miles from the Town of Columbia…”

Hmmm. Let’s find one of the Dambacher sennachies for some stories.

Dave Slicton, 74, is the grandson of Albert Dambacher, one of Charles Dambacher’s sons. Dave and his wife, Carole, were given a treasure trove of photos by Dave’s mother, Mabel. What to do with it? As Dave identified those in the photographs, Carole lightly wrote their names on the back. If Dave had a story to go along with the picture, she typed it up, attached the note to the picture and placed it in the album.

Nothing is more aggravating to a genealogist than to have an old family photo with no names. “She has grandma’s nose” or “His mouth is the same as grandpa’s” will not do. So while you can still remember who they are, identify everyone in your family photos – and don’t use a heavy hand to write their names on the back of the picture, as this can cause permanent damage.

Dave and Carole say this labor of love is for their children and grandchildren. The result of their work is sure to be treasured by their descendants.

Another way to preserve history is to interview family members with a recorder or video camera. Hearing the voices of their elders or seeing them onscreen will be meaningful for generations to come. Contact your local historical society, museum or library to see if it is collecting these stories.

Columbia College has an online archive of interviews with community figures, gathered through Professor Richard Dyer’s oral history courses in the 1970s and 1980s (Charles Dambacher’s son, Doc, was among those interviewed). The collection also includes recordings from the Tuolumne County Historical Society. Find it online at

Another rich resource is the Amador County Living History Project. I spoke with Keith Sweet, president of the Amador Historical Society and vice mayor of Jackson. He and other dedicated volunteers have recorded the oral histories and stories of 30 Amador County families. You can listen to or read these online at

The collection also includes oral histories gathered by Keith Davis’s Honors U.S. History class at Sutter Creek’s Argonaut High School in the 1970s.

In addition, Amador history expert Cedric Clute, 84, has contributed numerous family history interviews he conducted and has now transcribed. I opened one of the interviews at random, recorded in 1976: “I, Stephen Graham, am the fourth great-grandson of Jose Amador …” Graham goes on to tell what he knows about the Amador family.

I then clicked on the link for “Ted Baggelman – John Sutter,” a 1979 interview in which Baggelman talked about finding John Sutter’s birthplace, a little town in Switzerland “with scenery just like the Mother Lode.” Even if you don’t have ancestors from Amador County, the stories are fascinating.

The living history project is ongoing, so check it often to see what has been added. Keith Sweet encourages those with a family story to tell and preserve for future generations to contact him at (209) 419-3770.

Until next time, good luck researching and recording your family history, which will prove invaluable to your family’s future sennachies.

Isabelle Drown is a genealogy expert who lives in Sonora.

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Isabelle MacLean Drown
By Isabelle MacLean Drown June 15, 2015 19:28
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